Friends, I am blessed to be with you this morning. Thank you for inviting me to preach. I was hoping to join you in person because I’d planned to come to San Antonio to speak at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. But because of the pandemic, my presentation went virtual, so here I am at home, bringing greetings from the East Coast, where I serve the two Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts as well as the United Church of Christ in southern New England. In this ecumenical role, I speak to people of faith about our call to cherish and protect God’s creation. If you’d like to know more about what I’m up to, please visit my Website, RevivingCreation.org. I want to give a special shoutout to members of your Creation Care team – thank you for your leadership. If there’s anything I can do to support you, please let me know.
I can’t think of a better day to be with you than today, as we launch the season of Advent and begin a new church year. During these four weeks leading up to Christmas, we prepare to celebrate the first coming of Christ, when God became incarnate in Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. And we prepare for his second coming, too. We look ahead to that last, great day sometime in the future when Christ will come again, when everything will be gathered up in love, when all that is broken will be healed, all that is estranged will be reconciled and forgiven, and the Lord of life will return at last to reign in glory.
Christianity is full of hope about where we are ultimately heading – into the loving arms of God. But it is also bracingly realistic about the suffering and turmoil that will take place in the meantime. Today on the first Sunday of Advent, as we do every year, we must grapple with the Bible’s portrayal of the end-times, which include frightening predictions of social breakdown and cosmic turmoil. As we heard two weeks ago in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus foretells “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7); he speaks of earthquakes, famines, and persecution. In today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes at the end of time, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:25-26).
It’s scary stuff. And it resonates with our own experience of a shaking world. Snow in Houston. Triple digit temperatures in the Pacific Northwest. Withered crops and empty reservoirs in the American Southwest. Shorelines dissolving in Florida. Flash floods rising so quickly that people drown in their basement apartments. Wildfires so hot that they generate their own storms. Oceans emptying of life and filling with plastic. Changes in the jet stream. Changes in the Gulf stream.
The signs of a changing climate are visible everywhere. Around the world, throngs of people are already on the move, because drought or crop failure or fires or storms have dislodged them from their homes.
Indeed, the once-stable web of life is unraveling before our eyes. Huge populations of creatures have vanished in less than 50 years. Human activity has wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970.1 With dismay, scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation.”2 And about one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction, many within decades.
The world is reeling, so I come to today’s Gospel passage with relief – it tells the truth. It speaks to our condition. The Bible has wisdom to convey in apocalyptic times like these. What is “apocalypse”? It comes from the Greek word “kalypto,” which means “to cover” or “to hide.” “Apocalypse” refers to a great unveiling, a lifting of the veil of illusion. In that sense, surely, we live in apocalyptic times: something like scales have fallen from our eyes and everything that was hidden is being laid bare.
For instance, now we know that we can’t take the natural world for granted. Now we see the miracle of what we once thought would be ours forever: predictable seasons, moderate weather, thriving coral reefs, ice sheets as big as a continent. Now we know that the stable natural world into which you and I were born is coming apart, and – to quote a conservation wildlife photographer – that “even the lowliest ants or butterflies can no longer be taken for granted ever again.”3
Do apocalyptic, end-time passages like these mean that we should passively accept natural disasters that result from human-caused climate change as somehow preordained and part of God’s plan? That’s what some Christians would have us believe, but I don’t see it that way. I don’t for one minute believe that God wants human beings to burn the Earth to a crisp. I don’t for one minute believe that biblical end-time passages give human beings a license to rip apart the web of life and to destroy the world that our Creator proclaimed “very good” (Genesis 1:31). On the contrary, I believe that God’s creative, holy presence fills our precious, living planet, and that all of it belongs to God – meadows, rivers, soils and seeds, animals and oceans. As the psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). And the very first task given to human beings is to care for the earth, to serve as custodians and stewards.
As I see it, the Bible’s end-time passages and their frightening imagery of chaos and distress were not given to us so that we can indulge in wasteful and disheartening political rhetoric, in helplessness, resignation, or fatalism, but just the opposite: in order to sustain our courage, hope, and perseverance even in the midst of crisis.
In this time of climate emergency, I hear three messages in today’s Gospel. The first is: Don’t be surprised by suffering. Jesus warned of social breakdown and conflict. He anticipated natural and even cosmic disruption. Don’t be surprised by suffering, our Gospel text reminds us. Don’t take your suffering or the world’s suffering to mean that God is powerless or that God doesn’t care or that God has abandoned us. Everything we are experiencing is held within the gaze – indeed, within the embrace – of a loving God. So, don’t be surprised.
A second message: Don’t be afraid. Although many people “will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” followers of Jesus should take heart. “Now when these things begin to take place,” says Jesus, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). “Stand up!” he says. “And raise your heads!” What bracing words these are when we may feel like curling up in a ball and ducking our head under a pillow! It’s easy to feel hopeless about ecological collapse and climate change. It’s easy to feel helpless and overwhelmed. What can I possibly do? We may say to ourselves. What difference can I possibly make? But here comes Jesus, telling us to stand up and not be afraid, for our redemption is drawing near. He is very close (Luke 21:27).
And here comes message number three: Don’t fall asleep. Stay awake, says Jesus. “Be alert at all times” (Luke 21:36). Look for the small but telling signs that God is in our midst, bringing forth something new. Just as the branch of a fig tree becomes tender and puts forth its first, soft leaves, assuring us that summer’s abundance is near, so Jesus urges us to notice that even in the midst of chaos, violence, and endings, God’s kingdom is drawing near. In the very midst of endings, something new is being born.
As I hear it, Jesus is calling us to stand up and take part in that birth – the birth of a new community, the birth of a new society that lives more lightly on God’s good Earth and that treats human beings and other-than-human beings with reverence, compassion, and respect. In this perilous time, God calls us to stand up, raise our heads, and bear witness in word and deed to God’s never-failing love, which embraces the whole creation.
And when it comes to healing, there is so much we can do! 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. The Diocese of Western Massachusetts has web pages on Creation care loaded with ideas about ways to 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 and that encourage clean renewable energy like sun and wind. A just and equitable transition to a new economy means creating lots of good green jobs for folks now working in the fossil fuel industry, and it means ensuring that historically marginalized and low-income communities – the people hurt first and hardest by climate change – have a voice at the table where decisions are made. If humanity is going to keep living on a reasonably habitable planet, then this transition must happen now. It’s up to us to insist that political leaders lead the transition – especially in places where so much of the economy and so many jobs are dependent on fossil fuels.
Here’s the last thing I’ll say. After COP26, the U.N. climate summit that just finished in Glasgow, every member of the Episcopal delegation made it clear that “protecting the Earth and preventing human suffering are not merely political talking points but central tenets of the Episcopal faith.”4 I was especially touched by the words of the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, a delegate from the Diocese of Olympia and a member of the Shackan First Nation people. She said: “The faith of re-greening the world must become as central to our theology, and to our worship, as crucifixion and resurrection… We must give nothing less than all we have and all we are in order to assure new life if generations are to follow us at all. The world to come that we pray for in our Sunday worship is ours to entomb or to liberate.”5
I pray that our Church – the Church of Reconciliation and our Church as a whole – will become a beacon of light and a leader of bold climate action. As we step into this Advent season and into a new year, may Jesus keep us steadfast in faith and abounding in love for one another and for all, until his coming in glory. Amen.
NOTE: To subscribe to my monthly newsletter, Creation Care Network e-news, please click here. A video of “Standing Up When Things Fall Apart” is posted at my YouTube channel.
1. “A Warning Sign from Our Planet: Nature Needs Life Support,” Living Planet Report 2018, World Wildlife Fund, Oct. 30, 2018
2. Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Rodolfo Dirzo, “Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines,” PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), July 25, 2017.
3. Cyril Christo, “Climate change is really Apocalypse Now,” The Hill, July 17, 2021.
4. Egan Millard, “Episcopal delegates to COP26 climate conference share lessons of hope and struggle with the church,” Episcopal News Service, November 19, 2021.
5. The Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, quoted by Millard, “Episcopal delegates to COP26.”
Today is Earth Sunday, the Sunday after Earth Day, when countless people across the country renew their commitment to restore the planet that we call home. Earth Sunday always falls in Easter season, and this year it lands on the Sunday we celebrate as Good Shepherd Sunday. Scripture gives us many different ways to imagine Jesus. In the Gospel of John, for instance, Jesus calls himself “the bread of life” (John 6:35), “the light of the world” (John 8:12) and “the true vine” (John 15:1) – images with their own resonance and meaning – but Jesus “the good shepherd” is the image that many of us treasure most.
I, for one, am grateful that this year Earth Sunday coincides with Good Shepherd Sunday, for I need to be drawn again into Jesus’ consoling and empowering presence. Maybe some of you do, too. As we take stock of the living world around us and consider the faltering health of our dear planet, we confess that the path that society has traveled for the last two centuries has led to an unprecedented human emergency: we are hurtling toward climate catastrophe and we are watching the web of life unravel before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – have vanished in less than 50 years. In what scientists call a “biological annihilation,” human beings have wiped out more than half the world’s creatures since 1970. Meanwhile, the relentless burning of coal, gas, and oil and the logging of forests are accelerating climate change, pushing our planet to break records of all kinds – as Secretary of State Antony Blinken commented the other day: “We’re running out of records to break.”
I know I don’t have to belabor the details of what it’s like to be at ground zero of the climate crisis. My heart goes out to all of you in Boulder who are already experiencing the effects of a fast-warming climate, from extreme weather events to droughts and wildfire.
Intertwined with our ecological challenges are the social justice challenges of economic inequity and white racism. After the trial of Derek Chauvin, convicted this week of killing George Floyd, and in light of the movement for racial justice that has been surging for months across this country, many of us are reflecting deeply on our country’s heritage of white supremacy. Racial justice is closely tied to climate justice – in fact, I’ve heard it said that we wouldn’t have climate change without white supremacy. Where would we put our urban oilfields – where would we put our dumping grounds and trash, our biomass plants, our toxic incinerators and other polluting industries – if we weren’t willing to sacrifice Black, indigenous, and people of color communities? In the 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.”1
In a world of so much injustice, violence, and uncertainty, where a mass shooting can take place in your local grocery store and a beloved landscape can go up in flames, where do we turn for solace and strength? We turn to the Good Shepherd of our souls. How does his presence speak to you this morning?
What I notice is that, as our good shepherd, Jesus holds everyone and everything together. A shepherd is the person charged with keeping the flock intact, united, and heading in the right direction. I find it reassuring to contemplate the image of God in Christ drawing us into something unified and whole, because right now so much seem to be splintering and breaking apart. The tapestry of life that was once intact is being torn apart as greenhouse gas emissions disrupt the planet’s atmosphere. Our human communities are likewise being torn apart by political division, economic division, racial division.
When we turn to the Good Shepherd, we touch the sacred unity within and beyond all things. We touch the Ground of our being. We meet the One in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17) – everything within us, everything around us.
Maybe you remember the puzzle2 which consists of nine dots on a page, lined up in rows of three. The challenge is to connect the dots by making four straight lines without once lifting your pencil from the page. Try it however many times you like, but the only way to connect all nine dots with just four straight lines is to go outside the borders of the box. Solving this puzzle is an example of “thinking outside the box,” of moving beyond a given paradigm in order to perceive or to accomplish something that otherwise couldn’t be perceived or accomplished.
That’s what it’s like to experience the Good Shepherd: in the midst of a world in which everything seems to be divided and falling apart, we sense an underlying wholeness and unity. We sense a love that embraces all things, connects all things, sustains all things. On the surface, in the realm of our five senses, we see mainly differences, what divides us from each other, but in the deep center of reality we meet the good shepherd who holds everything together, drawing us into community with each other and drawing us into communion with God.
We hear the shepherd’s voice when we take time to quiet ourselves, when we sit in solitude and silence and listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts. The good shepherd is the one who knows us through and through and who calls us each by name. Held in the embrace of that intimate love, we don’t have to keep trying to hold ourselves together – we are free to let go, free to fall apart, free to let ourselves feel our grief, feel our anger and fear as we respond to the climate crisis and to all the challenges of our lives. The good shepherd is there to hold what we cannot hold, there to listen, there to protect and keep company, there to help us understand how deeply we are loved – and not just we ourselves, but all people – and not just all people, but all beings, the whole of God’s creation.
In the presence of the Good Shepherd, we remember that there is more that unites us than divides us. And the movement toward unity keeps getting larger. As Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16-17). And so – beneath all our differences of race, class, gender, and political party, beneath all the ways that humans try to separate ourselves from each other and from the rest of the natural world, presuming that we can dominate and destroy with impunity – Jesus reminds us that in fact we belong to one living, sacred whole.
Every time we tap into the deep-down truth of our essential belovedness, we discover fresh energy for life. We tap into the same wave of Easter hope that filled the first followers of Jesus. When they saw that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, when they met the Risen Christ in their midst and in their hearts, when they realized that life and not death would have the last word and that nothing could separate them from the love of God, their lives were filled with fresh meaning and purpose. They realized that they belonged to a sacred mystery that was larger than themselves, to a love that would never let them go. Even though they were still mortal and frail, still vulnerable and imperfect people in a big, chaotic world, they knew that they participated in a long story of salvation to which they could contribute, every moment of their lives, by choosing compassion over indifference, kindness over cruelty, love over fear. Their inner liberation gave them courage to resist the forces of death and destruction, and to obey God rather than any human authority (Acts 5:29).
Today’s passage from the Book of Acts is a case in point: the witness of the first Christians got them into all kinds of trouble. Peter and the other early Christians were accused of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6), and their commitment to God, and to the Good Shepherd of their souls, apparently led many of them to spend as much time inside as outside the walls of a jail. Their witness to a transcendent, all-embracing Love shook the foundations of their society.
That same wave of Easter hope fills Christians today and carries us now, every one of us who feels impelled to join our Creator in re-weaving the web of life, in building a gentler and more just society, and in getting us into what Representative John Lewis called “good trouble” as we fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong, and to dismantle white supremacy. We can do this from a heart of love. On this Earth Sunday, we give thanks for the Good Shepherd and we renew our resolve to be a blessing to the Earth that God entrusted to our care.
1. Hop Hopkins, “Racism Is Killing the Planet”: The ideology of white supremacy leads the way toward disposable people and a disposable natural world, June 8, 2020.
2. “Thinking outside the box,” Wikipedia (accessed April 25, 2021)
The whole service may be viewed on YouTube on the channel for St. John’s Episcopal Church. Rev. Margaret’s sermon begins at 20:18.
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.”
Leaders of the Eastern Church and the Western Church, representing billions of people worldwide, spoke with one voice this month about the moral urgency of confronting the climate crisis.
“A civilization is defined and judged by our respect for the dignity of humanity and the integrity of nature,” declared the head of the Orthodox Church, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in his keynote address for a three-day international symposium held in Greece. “Toward a Green Attica: Preserving the Planet and Protecting Its People” was the ninth international, inter-disciplinary, and inter-religious symposium that Patriarch Bartholomew has convened since 1991 to highlight the spiritual basis of ecological care and to strengthen collaboration across disciplines in our quest to build a just and habitable world.
I accepted an invitation to attend the symposium, along with 200 leaders in a variety of fields – science, economics, theology, public policy, journalism, business, and social activism. Gathering in Athens and visiting the islands of Spetses and Hydra, we studied climate science, explored strategic actions toward sustainability and resilience, and renewed our commitment to push for the economic and societal changes that must take place if we are to avert social and ecological chaos and widespread suffering. (For the program and a list of participants, visit here.)
Peter Cardinal Turkson, a Ghanaian Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church who worked closely with Pope Francis in developing the papal encyclical, Laudato Si, represented the Pope at the symposium. Cardinal Turkson read a statement from Pope Francis that included these lines: “It is not just the homes of vulnerable people around the world that are crumbling, as can be seen in the world’s growing exodus of climate migrants and environmental refugees. As I sought to point out in my Encyclical Laudato Si’, we may well be condemning future generations to a common home left in ruins. Today we must honestly ask ourselves a basic question: ‘What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?’” (The entire statement can be found here.)
One of the most powerful, disturbing and illuminating lectures was given by Jeffrey Sachs, a world-renowned professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Sachs gave a one-hour overview of the history of economics that included a blistering critique of corporate capitalism and its veneration of greed, by which “Nature is utterly sacrificed for profit.” (A professional videographer recorded his speech, but until that video becomes available, you can watch a more basic recording here).
Other speakers at the symposium included such luminaries as award-winning scientist and activist Vandana Shiva, who argued that modern industrial agriculture has become “an act of war” against human health and the health of the Earth. She noted that the chemicals used to kill insects are the same chemicals that were used in Hitler’s concentration camps. Members of Hitler’s “poison cartel” were tried at Nuremberg for their crimes, she said, “but those crimes continue in the name of feeding the world.” Asserting that only 5% of cancers have a genetic basis, she maintained that the recent merger of corporate giants Monsanto and Bayer created a “cancer train”: one part of the company makes carcinogenic chemicals, and the other part makes the medicine used to treat cancer. She also contended: “Climate change is the destruction of the metabolic system of the planet to regulate her climate.”
Other speakers likewise underscored the urgent need to galvanize humanity’s vision, will, and moral courage as we confront the climate crisis, which poses an existential threat to civilization. Writer and activist Raj Patel urged us to consider the question, “What sort of ancestor do you want to be?” When asked about the role of civil disobedience, he replied, “Now and yesterday is a good day to put our bodies on the lever of the machine.”
Award-winning human rights advocate Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp spoke movingly about the power of compassion, based on his own experience as a three-month-old infant who was protected from the Nazis by a Roman Catholic family, and spared from death by an SS guard who took pity on him. “We are wood plucked out of the fire,” he cried. “How can I ever despair? We are able to plant the future into the present…We desperately need each other…A decade is rising before us, a decade where miracles can happen. Can we declare this decade a sacred time? We are one human family, one Earth community with a common destiny. Is this not a moment of kairos?… We are men and women of radical hope.”
Speaking of hope – Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) from 2010-2016, gave one of the most impassioned appeals to active hope that I’ve ever heard. Figueres was a key player in the successful delivery of the Paris Climate Accord, an agreement that she deemed “fundamentally necessary” yet also “insufficient.” Figueres is a small, vigorous woman; her concentrated focus and fierce tenacity reminded me of a diminutive songbird with the astonishing capacity to migrate thousands of miles. Like the Rabbi, she, too, spoke of kairos, which she defined – citing Patriarch Bartholomew – as “the intersection of conviction and commitment.” In response to the urgent question, “What can we do?” she exhorted everyone: 1) to eradicate meat from our diets; 2) to be careful in our methods of transportation; 3) if we live in a democracy, to vote responsibly (to do otherwise is “collusion with a crime against humanity”); and 4) to leverage the power of capital by divesting from fossil fuel companies and investing in clean renewables.
Figueres went further: she challenged communities of faith to “strengthen the arc of faith” – that is, to “inject confidence” in the process of transformation that has started and that must accelerate. After all, limiting global average temperatures to a 1.5º rise – the aspirational goal of the Paris Climate Accord – gives only a 66% guarantee of saving small island states. How many of us would board an airplane that had only a 66% chance of landing safely? She also challenged faith communities to “expand the arc of love,” so that no one is excluded.
Both Jeffrey Sachs and Cardinal Turkson left the symposium early to travel to Rome. Pope Francis had taken the unprecedented step of inviting the world’s top fossil fuel executives – including the chairman of Exxon Mobil, the chief executive of the Italian energy giant Eni, and the chief executive of BP – along with money managers of major financial institutions, to meet with him in a two-day, closed-door conference at the Vatican. Sachs and Turkson joined the meeting to add their perspectives.
“There is no time to lose,” the Pope told the participants. He appealed to them “to be the core of a group of leaders who envision the global energy transition in a way that will take into account all the peoples of the earth, as well as future generations and all species and ecosystems.”
Thus, in one extraordinary week, Christian Churches, both East and West, called for robust action to address climate disruption.
The Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, Bishop of California and leader of the Presiding Bishop’s delegation to UN Climate Summits, commented: “The moment is dire, and also is our (humanity’s) moment of greatest possibility. St. Irenaeus called a human fully alive the glory of God. Now, 1,300 years later we may understand that for humanity to act as one for the good of the Earth is yet a greater expression of God’s glory.”
Looking back on the symposium, Bishop Marc was thankful for its “great spirit of respect and mutuality… Rather than lobbying to enlist people to each cause, there was a celebration of what each person is doing to heal the Earth, and a seeking to support each person on their path, to make connections. A good example of this to me was the tremendous joy we all felt as the Ecumenical Patriarch released two kestrels that had been nursed back to health by an Athenian woman whose ministry is protecting and healing endangered birds.”
Another Episcopal participant, Dr. Sheila Moore Andrus, a biologist and an active climate champion from Diocese of CA, expressed appreciation for the opportunity to meet new climate activists and connect with individuals she has respected for many years – including the Rev. Fletcher Harper, who, she said, “is currently working on a project similar to one I am working on for the Diocese of CA: a web-based tool that can help people decrease their carbon footprint and aggregate those choices by church and diocesan Community. The conference gave Fletcher, Marc and me a chance to explore ways to promote such a tool among interfaith groups, and all this in settings filled with inspiring talks and sacred indoor/outdoor spaces.”
The Rev. Fletcher Harper, Executive Director of GreenFaith, concluded: “The fact that it was searingly hot during the symposium made the point about the need for action as powerfully as any of the speakers. This September, the multi-faith service at Grace Cathedral at the start of the Global Climate Action Summit gives everyone a chance – whether in person or on the live-stream – to commit to living the change in our own diet, transportation and home energy use that’s needed for a non-scorched, sustainable future.”
Imagine there is a fire in your house. What do you do? What do you think about? You do whatever you can to try to put out the fire or exit the house. You make a plan about how you can put out the fire, or how you can best exit the house. Your senses are heightened, you are focused like a laser, and you put your entire self into your actions. You enter emergency mode.
These are the opening lines of a fascinating essay that every climate activist and every faith leader should read.
“Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: A New Strategy for the Climate Movement” recognizes that when we face an existential or moral crisis, we can pull back into paralyzed inaction or rush about in panicked, ineffective, chaotic action. But choosing between paralysis and panic is not our only option. Instead, we can enter a state of consciousness in which we become highly focused and purposeful, pour our resources into solving the crisis, and accomplish great feats.
Margaret Klein Salamon, author of the article and the Founding Director of The Climate Mobilization, calls this “emergency mode.” She considers emergency mode a particularly intense form of flow state, which has been described as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” She cites Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who pioneered the study of flow and who described it as: “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one… your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
When we enter emergency mode, inertia or panic are replaced by focused, productive action toward a few critical goals. Non-essential functions are curtailed. Failure is not an option.
In ordinary times, a country is governed in what Salamon wryly labels “normal political-paralysis mode.” We experience a lack of national leadership, and politics is “adversarial and incremental.” By contrast, when a country is in emergency mode, “bipartisanship and effective leadership are the norm.” People work together because they face a shared and urgent threat.
Salamon accurately calls the climate crisis “an unprecedented emergency.” She writes: “Humanity is careening towards the deaths of billions of people, millions of species, and the collapse of organized civilization.” Her article and her organization, The Climate Mobilization, are devoted to developing strategies to mobilize an emergency response. Although I don’t agree with all her policy recommendations, I believe that her basic framing of the challenge is just right.
Most faith communities do not recognize the climate crisis and are not in emergency mode. Yet when faith communities enter this heightened state of awareness about our planetary emergency, we have significant gifts to offer.
I. When faith communities understand the climate crisis and enter emergency mode, what roles do we play? We…
• Address helplessness
People who are secretly worried about climate change often don’t take action because they feel helpless and overwhelmed (“The situation is dire. What difference can I possibly make?”). Faith communities address helplessness in multiple ways, both directly and indirectly. For instance, gathering for worship can be understood as turning toward a Higher Power (God, divine Mystery, Creator, Source) in whose presence we are uplifted, and feel our strength renewed. Entrusting ourselves to God can release within us unexpected power “to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
• Face facts
A person of faith is someone who is committed to the search for truth. A Zen Buddhist might speak of facing reality as it is. A Jew, Muslim, or Christian might speak of relating to an all-seeing, all-knowing God who is truth and who leads us into all truth. At their best, the Abrahamic faiths believe that God has given us the capacity to learn about the created world through the lens of science. Science is one important avenue to discovering what is true. People of faith try to see through self-deception and illusion in their quest to discover what is true and to live their lives in accordance with the truth.
Truth includes both material and spiritual realities. By definition, facts are true until proven otherwise. We do not have any right to our own facts.
Science has established that climate change is real, largely caused by human activities, already inflicting widespread damage, and, unless humanity swiftly changes course, on track to make it difficult or impossible for civilization to continue to exist. We know that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground, lest we plunge past the point of no return. We know we must make a just and swift transition to a clean energy economy.
Such facts are difficult to face and absorb. But faith communities have the capacity to face facts, tell the truth, and dismiss denial. We trust, and are accountable to, a sacred reality that includes and transcends the material world. From this vantage point, faith communities are uniquely positioned to see through the lies of climate denial. Thanks to our commitment to the truth, we can let go the comfortable fibs and fantasies we may be tempted to tell ourselves (“I don’t need to change; I can continue with business as usual; climate change is someone else’s problem”). We also seek to uncover the confusion, misinformation, and lies about climate change that are deliberately spread by the fossil fuel industry and by the political leaders they fund. Not to do so is to participate in idolatry and to betray our own commitment to bear witness to the truth.
As a Christian, I believe that a religion that directs our gaze to a suffering, dying man on a cross is a religion that can face painful facts. As a Christian, I also believe that perceiving God’s presence in the very midst of suffering and death is a gateway to transformation and new life.
• Provide vision “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV).
Climate science has done its job, giving us essential facts about the potentially catastrophic consequences of continuing to burn fossil fuels. But facts alone are not sufficient to persuade people to take meaningful, concerted action. For that, we need vision – a shared goal, purpose, and values. This is what faith communities can do: lift up a vision of people living in just and loving relationships with each other and with the whole Creation, a vision energized by a deep desire for God’s love to be fully manifest in the world. Faith communities have a vital role to play in inspiring action to safeguard the world that God entrusted to our care.
As Antoine de Saint Exupery observed, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Simon Sinek makes the same point in his terrific TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” when he says, “Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech.”
• Offer hope
Human beings hope for so much: we want a good future for our kids; we want a livable world; we want the web of life to remain intact. The climate crisis challenges these cherished hopes. It renders uncertain the future of the whole human enterprise.
Faith communities offer a context in which to explore and take hold of the kind of hope that does not depend on outward circumstances but that emerges from a deep and irrepressible place in the human spirit. Animated by a radical, God-given hope, people of faith throw themselves into healing the Earth and its communities, human and other than human. Active hope – actively embodying ones deepest values and being ready at every moment to welcome and build the longed-for future – is a path to joy.
• Renew love
Climate change is a “threat multiplier” that exacerbates existing problems, such as poverty, hunger, terrorism, refugees on the move, and the spread of infectious diseases. Racism, militarism, and xenophobia – the fear of what is perceived to be foreign or strange – are likely to increase as the planet warms and as various groups battle over depleted resources, such as arable land and clean drinking water. Religious groups, like every other group, can be hijacked by fear and become sources of discord and violence.
Yet the deep message of all the world’s religions is that we are interconnected with each other and with the Earth on which all life depends. Faith communities can help to restore our capacity to love God and our neighbor. The climate crisis is already bringing together leaders and members of many faiths in a unified call to protect Earth and all its inhabitants, human and other than human. Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical on climate justice, Laudato Si’, generated an ardent and enthusiastic response from diverse faith communities around the world.
In a sermon, a D’var Torah, or a dharma talk, in prayer circles, worship services, and meditation groups, in pastoral care, outreach, and advocacy, faith communities 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 going mad with hatred and fear, only love can restore us to sanity.
• Give moral guidance
The climate crisis raises existential questions about the meaning, purpose, and value of human life. What is our moral responsibility to future generations? What does it mean to be human, if human beings are destroying life as it has evolved on this planet? How do we address the anger, self-hatred and guilt that can arise with this awareness? How can we live a meaningful life when so much death surrounds us? How determined are we to radically amend our personal patterns of consumption and waste? What does living a “good” life look like today, given everything we know about the consequences of over-consumption, inequitable distribution of resources, and being part of (and probably benefiting from) an extractive economy that depends on fossil fuels and unlimited growth?
Faith communities provide a context for wrestling with these questions, for seeking moral grounding, and for being reminded of such old-fashioned values as compassion, generosity, self-control, selfless service, simple living, sacrifice, sharing, justice, forgiveness, and non-violent engagement in societal transformation.
Maybe we should think of the climate crisis as our doorway to enlightenment. The climate crisis challenges us, individually and collectively, to expand our consciousness and to live from our highest moral values. As Jayce Hafner points out in an article published in Sojourners, “I’m Ready to Evangelize…About Climate,” “The act of confronting climate change calls us to be better Christians in nearly every aspect of our lives.”
I expect that this is true not only for Christians, but for people of every faith.
• Encourage reconciliation and seek consensus The coal miner who just lost his job… the CEO of a fossil fuel company who is making plans to drill for more oil… the woman whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy… the farmer watching in despair as his crops wither from a massive drought… the construction worker laying down pipeline for fracked gas… the activist arrested for stopping construction of that pipeline… these are just some of the people who probably have wildly divergent views about the climate crisis and who may feel harmed by and angry with each other.
The climate crisis includes both victims and offenders. To some degree (though to quite different degrees) all of us bear some responsibility for the crisis. At the same time, all of us have a part to play in healing the damage and contributing to a better future. As we work to transition to a clean energy economy whose benefits are available to all communities, we need all hands on deck. Entering emergency mode requires that people work together toward a shared and deeply desired goal, and we need the participation and input of every sector of society as we try to protect our common home. As an African proverb puts it, “Two men in a burning house must not stop to argue.”
Faith communities can provide settings for difficult conversations, active listening, and “truth and reconciliation” groups modeled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed in South Africa in the 1990’s after apartheid was abolished. By expressing compassion while also holding groups and individuals morally accountable, faith communities can create possibilities for reconciliation and collaboration that would otherwise never exist. What’s more, because of their historic commitment to the oppressed, marginalized, and poor, faith communities can give voice to the needs of people and all creatures who are generally ignored or exploited by the people in power.
• Allow emotional response The climate crisis can make us go numb. Why think about the enormous stretches of coral reefs in Australia that just died in less than two months? 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 going extinct?
It is hard enough to face our own mortality or to mourn a loved one’s death. How do we begin to explore our fear and grief in response to the ecocide going on around us – much less express it? How do we move beyond despair?
Faith communities can give us practices, teachings, and rituals that allow us to feel, express, accept, and integrate the painful emotions evoked by climate change.
To ignite and sustain an emergency response, society needs to overcome what Salamon calls our “affect phobia,” our tendency to repress our feelings and to react to climate change only in terms of intellectual analysis and facts (How many heat records were broken last month? How many parts per million of CO2 are in the atmosphere now?). With the support of communities of faith, we can protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis without being overwhelmed by grief. Our emotions can also become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.
(For a comprehensive overview of the psychological impacts of climate change, take a look at “Beyond Droughts and Storms,” prepared by ecoAmerica and the American Psychological Association.)
• Offer pastoral care Faith communities can provide practical and spiritual assistance during climate-related disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. Congregations can make “disaster preparedness plans,” prepare a response in collaboration with local agencies, and develop networks of communication. One leader involved in this kind of preparation comments that congregations can be “sanctuaries of hope in times of disasters.”
Faith communities can also provide comfort and solace day by day. We can develop networks of pastoral care and spiritual outreach to address the rising rates of depression, anxiety, and other psychological challenges that are associated with climate change, being mindful that low-income communities may be particularly vulnerable to climate-related stressors.
• Heighten reverence for nature In a society that treats the natural world as an object to master, dominate, and exploit, faith communities can call us back to the sacredness of the Earth. Faith communities can support the efforts of land trusts to preserve farms, woods, wetlands, and open space (to locate your local land trust, visit Land Trust Alliance); can partner with organizations to bring inner-city children into natural settings; and can sponsor retreats and hikes that explore the wonders of Creation. Faith communities can learn, and help others to learn, what a stone or cloud or bird can teach (see, for instance, “Opening the Book of Nature,” developed by National Religious Coalition on Creation Care). They can help people from different religious background to become environmental leaders (see, for instance, the programs of GreenFaith and of The Center for Religion and the Environment at Sewanee). Some communities of faith gather for spiritual practice outside. For instance, Church of the Woods in Canterbury, NH, founded by the Rev. Steve Blackmer, is a new kind of “church”: “a place where the earth itself, rather than a building, is the bearer of sacredness.”
• Inspire bold action
Faith communities have a long history of leading movements for social and environmental justice, from child labor to women’s rights, peace, the abolition of slavery, and the civil rights movement. Faith communities tap into our capacity to dedicate ourselves to a cause that is greater than our personal comfort and self-interest. Faith in God (however we name that Higher Power) can inspire people to take bold actions that require courage, compassion, and creativity.
Faith communities can model best practices for “going green,” such as to get an energy audit, increase energy conservation and efficiency, look into installing solar panels, put in bike racks, replace lawns with community gardens, and so on. But taking care of our immediate buildings and community is just a start. An adequate response to the scope and speed of the climate crisis requires collective action and political engagement.
In the footsteps of trailblazers such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., hundreds, maybe thousands, of people, including countless people of faith, have been arrested in recent years as non-violent resistance to fossil fuels continues to grow. With fifteen other religious leaders, I was arrested on May 25 at a prayerful protest against construction of Spectra’s West Roxbury Lateral pipeline in Boston. On June 29 twelve faith leaders – Buddhist, Jewish, Protestant, and Unitarian Universalist – were among 23 people arrested in another protest of the same pipeline. In solidarity with the hundreds of people who recently died from deadly heat waves in Pakistan and India and were buried in mass graves, the clergy led a climate ‘mass graves’ funeral, featuring eulogies, prayers, and mourning, with some of the resisters lying down in the grave/trench for nearly two hours.
By inspiring significant action, such as divesting from fossil fuels and engaging in civil disobedience, faith communities can challenge the deathly status quo of “business as usual” and rouse society out of its apathy and inaction.
For religious leaders who want to network with colleagues to engage in visionary and prayerful civil disobedience, sign up at ClergyClimateAction.org.
To join an epic march, July 14-18, against new gas pipelines that will go all the way to the Massachusetts State House, visit People Over Pipelines.
II. When faith communities understand the climate crisis and enter emergency mode, what tools do we offer?
• Storytelling The myths, tales, parables and stories of religious traditions give us powerful ways to re-imagine our selves and our situation, and to absorb deep (not necessarily literal) truths. Stories speak not just to our rational mind but also to our affections, will, and imagination. From the Judaeo-Christian tradition, stories of Moses confronting Pharaoh and of Jesus healing, teaching, suffering, dying, and rising again – all these and more can be brought to bear to address the climate crisis and to give us courage, guidance, and motivation to act. Recently I learned that activists fighting to stop construction of a trash-burning incinerator in a low-income neighborhood of Baltimore are using the story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-21a) to illuminate their own experience of social and environmental injustice and to inspire their own acts of resistance.
• Prayer and silence
Every faith tradition offers practices that teach us how to move out our habitual narrow orbit of self-involvement and to connect with a larger, sacred reality. The climate crisis invites people who until now have felt immune from any desire to pray, to explore practices of prayer and meditation.
Expressive forms of prayer empower us to move beyond denial and numbness and to acknowledge the full range of our feelings. My article, “Feeling and pain and prayer,” originally published in Review for Religious, presents four ways that Christians can pray with difficult feelings. The article also describes how expressive prayer can change us over time, deepening our sense of intimacy with God, our experience of a peace that passes understanding, and our capacity to move from helplessness and hopelessness to effective action.
Contemplative forms of prayer (such as Centering Prayer and mindfulness meditation) strengthen our capacity to sit in silence with the unknown, to accept impasse, and to keep listening and trusting even in the darkness. Practices that lead the mind into silent awareness offer more than a respite from thinking about the climate crisis. They can open us to an intuitive, non-verbal experience of communion, even union, with others, with the natural world, and with ultimate reality. Experiencing our unshakable union with a love that is stronger than death is the great gift of contemplative prayer. Rooted in that fierce and openhearted love, we are guided to actions commensurate with the emergency we’re in.
• Rituals Faith traditions offer a range of ceremonies and rituals that seek to awaken our awareness and revive our relationship with a sacred presence or power beyond the limited world of “I, me, and mine.” In a time of climate crisis, people need rituals that address our fear of death and give us courage to trust in a life greater than death. We need rituals that ask us to name our guilt and regrets, that grant us forgiveness, and that give us strength to set a new course. We need rituals that remind us of our essential connection with each other, with the rest of the created world, and with the unseen Source of all that is. We need rituals that remind us of how loved we are, how precious the world is, and what a privilege it is to be born in a time when our choices and actions make such a difference.
Faith communities have a heritage of holy days, festivals, days of atonement, and liturgical seasons that gain fresh meaning in light of the climate crisis.
• Sermons It takes courage to preach about climate change. If you’re a faith leader who speaks or preaches frequently about the climate emergency, then yours is a rare and much-needed voice. If you’re a member of a faith community whose leaders speak rarely, weakly, or never about climate justice, then please give them steady encouragement to say what needs to be said.
As my climate activist friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Conference Minister and President, Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ) often says, if clergy don’t preach about climate change every few weeks, then in ten or fifteen years every sermon will be about grief.
• Public liturgies and outdoor prayer vigils Over the years I’ve led or participated in many outdoor interfaith public liturgies about climate change. In the wake of environmental disasters such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, or on the eve of significant environmental events, such as Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C. or the U.N. climate talks in Paris, people of all faiths often feel a need to gather so that we can express our grief, name our hopes, and touch our deep longing for healing and reconciliation. Faith communities can lead the way in providing public contexts for renewing our spirits, both indoors and outside.
III. What does this add up to? Faith communities can become agents of transformation.
Humanity stands at a crossroads. As individuals and as a species we face a decision of ultimate importance both to our souls and to the future of life. “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
This is not a fire drill. This is an actual emergency. Martin Luther King, Jr. got it right: we face “the fierce urgency of now.” “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Armed with this knowledge, faith communities can enter emergency mode. Speaking as a Christian, I envision a church in which every aspect of its life, from its preaching and worship services to its adult education and Sunday School, from its prayers to its public advocacy, grasps the urgency of protecting life as it has evolved on this planet. That is the kind of Church that the world needs today.
I am thankful for all people who are willing to face squarely the most challenging, even devastating facts; who reach into their reserves of courage, faith, and hope; and who step out to bear witness in very tangible ways – even in the face of suffering and death – to the ongoing presence and power of a love that abides within us and that sustains the whole creation.
“The huge West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse and slide into the sea in a way that scientists call ‘unstoppable.’ …If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith that life and not death will have the last word, now would be the time. If ever there were a time to take hold of the vision of a Beloved Community in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with all our fellow creatures, now would be the time. The collapse of the ice sheet in Antarctica may be ‘unstoppable,’ but so is the love that calls us to stand up for life.”
— Excerpt of my sermon, “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Climate Movement,” January 18, 2015
NOTE: I was prompted to write this essay after serving on a panel of faith leaders at the 2016 conference of Citizens Climate Lobby in Washington, DC. The panel’s moderator, Peterson Toscano, asked two questions: What role(s) do you see faith communities take on in times of crisis? What tools does your faith tradition offer that can be used to address climate change? The four panelists included Dr. Steven Colecchi (Director of the Office of International Justice and Peace, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), Rachel Lamb (National Organizer and Spokesperson, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action), Joelle Novey (Director, Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light), and me. The hour was over well before we’d finished exploring the topic. This essay is a bid to extend the conversation.
Here on the First Sunday of Advent we are beginning a new church year, embarking on a new season, making a fresh start. Now is the time, as our opening Collect says, “to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.” During these four weeks that lead up to Christmas we prepare to celebrate the first coming of Christ, when God became incarnate in Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. And we prepare for his second coming, too. We look ahead to that last, great day sometime in the future when Christ will come again, when everything will be gathered up in love, when all that is broken will be healed, all that is estranged will be reconciled and forgiven, and the Lord of life will return at last to reign in glory.
Christianity is full of hope about where we are ultimately heading – into the loving arms of God – but it is also bracingly realistic about the suffering and turmoil that will take place in the meantime. Today on the first Sunday of Advent, as we do every year, we must grapple with the Bible’s portrayal of the end-times, which include frightening predictions of social breakdown and cosmic turmoil. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus foretells “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7); he speaks of earthquakes, famines, and persecution. As we heard in today’s passage, when the Son of Man comes at the end of time, we can expect that “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24).
It’s scary stuff. So what do we make of apocalyptic passages like these? How do these biblical passages about the end times help us to live with faithfulness, confidence, and hope? As you know, I serve the diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, so I do a lot of speaking and preaching about climate change and about the urgent need for human beings to change course and to take action to protect and cherish the world that God entrusted to our care. According to a new poll about American attitudes to religion and the environment, about half – 49% – of the respondents believe that recent natural disasters are evidence of biblical end times. Apparently, about half of Americans believe that climate change caused by human beings is somehow preordained, part of God’s plan.
Could this be true? Should biblical accounts of the end times evoke and amplify a sense of fatalism about climate change? Should Christians settle for a helpless shrug of the shoulders as we consider the devastation that climate change is already causing or likely to cause, if it continues unchecked? I recall a cartoon in which a mother, father, and their young son huddle around a toaster. Two smoking slices of bread have just popped up, burned to a crisp. The mother looks mournfully at the burned toast and declares, “It is God’s will.” The father intones, “Had the toast been destined to be edible, it would be so.” The small boy grips the table with his two hands, looks up at his parents, and says, “B-b-but…”
I admit it: I’m standing with that child and saying “But!” I refuse to believe that it’s God’s will that human beings burn the Earth to a crisp. I refuse to believe that destiny, fate, or the biblical end times give human beings permission to unravel the web of life and to destroy the world that God created and proclaimed “very good” (Genesis 1:31). I believe that God’s presence fills and sustains our precious, living planet, and that all of it belongs to God – meadows and rivers, soils and seeds, animals and oceans. As the psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). And the first task given to human beings is to care for the earth and to exercise a loving dominion as stewards and caregivers.
We’re having some difficulty with that assignment. Climate change caused by human activity is already having drastic and far-reaching effects around the world. In only two centuries – just a blink in geologic time – human beings have pumped so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the air that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher today than they’ve been for hundreds of thousands of years. I heard a climate scientist remark, “We are breathing from an atmosphere that none of our ancestors would recognize.”
When we burn fossil fuels such as coal, gas, and oil, we release vast quantities of carbon and heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, as if the atmosphere were an open sewer. This practice could raise worldwide average temperatures between 5 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit in this century, which would make the world an extremely difficult place for humans and other creatures to inhabit. Already our planet is changing before our eyes: oceans are heating up and becoming more acidic as they absorb some of the carbon dioxide released by power plants and cars; tundra is thawing, ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, coral reefs are dying, massive droughts are spreading in some places and heavy rains are intensifying in others. Last spring we learned that the huge West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse and slide into the sea in a way that scientists call “unstoppable.” The Pentagon recently issued a report asserting decisively that climate change poses “an immediate risk to national security” and is a so-called “threat multiplier,” increasing the likelihood of terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty and food shortages. The latest climate report from the United Nations warns of waves of refugees and of the mass extinction of plants and animals, if we keep to our present course. Of course, here in this country and around the world it is the poor who are hit first and hardest by the impacts of climate change.
How serious is the threat? As environmental lawyer Gus Speth puts it: “…all we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and [organisms] and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today… Just continue to release greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in.”
So – is this the end times? I don’t know. No one knows. Jesus repeatedly told his followers, as he does in today’s Gospel, not to speculate as to when the end times would come (Matthew 24:3-8; Mark 13:3-8; Luke 21:7-11) – even Jesus himself did not know. But what we do know is that at some unexpected moment, the last day will come – whether it be the last day of our lives or the last day of the world. Until that day, Jesus urges us to be faithful witnesses to the enduring love of God. The biblical end time passages and their frightening imagery of chaos and distress were not given to us so that we can indulge in helplessness, resignation, or fatalism, but just the opposite: in order to sustain our hope and perseverance even in the midst of crisis.
Again and again, in different ways Jesus came to say, “Fear not” (see, for instance, Matthew 6:25-34, Matthew 8:26, Matthew 10:31, Matthew 14:27). In Advent he summons us not to faint from fear and foreboding, nor to let our love grow cold, but rather to stay awake and be alert for the small but telling signs that God is in our midst, bringing forth something new. Just as the branch of a fig tree becomes tender and puts forth its first, soft leaves, assuring us that summer’s abundance is near, so Jesus urges us to trust that even in the midst of chaos, violence, and endings, God’s kingdom is drawing near. In the very midst of endings, something new is being born. Will we take part in that birth?
Advent and its end-time readings tell us that in the face of climate change, we should not give ourselves up to apathy, indifference, or despair. In this perilous time, God calls us to stand up, raise our heads, and bear witness in word and deed to God’s never failing love. “It is like a man going on a journey,” Jesus says in that tiny parable concealed in today’s Gospel. The man leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, “each with his work” (Mark 13:34). Each of us has our own work to do, as we keep faith with the God who is faithful to us.
And when it comes to healing Creation, there is so much we can do! We can recycle more, drive less, and be sparing in our use of water. We can turn off lights when we leave a room. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support our local farms and land trusts. We can install insulation and turn down the heat. If you don’t yet have a green team or a Creation Care team (whatever you want to call it) here at Trinity Church, you can form one. If you’d like to join a network of people in the diocese who care about Creation, I hope you will give me your name and contact information. I’d be glad to support you in any way I can.
As individuals we should do everything we can to reduce our use of fossil fuels, but the scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale, too. We need to join with other people and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We need to push our leaders to make a swift transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind. We need to quit our addiction to fossil fuels and to bring down the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a level that allows life as it has evolved to continue on this planet.
Here in western Massachusetts we are blessed to have a strong grassroots group, Climate Action Now, which is involved in many local campaigns. I hope that you will sign up to receive weekly emails, read the news, and connect. Tomorrow an important U.N. climate change conference will begin in Lima, Peru, and I hope that you will join me in praying for its success. (I invite you to take part in #Light for Lima, a series of vigils that will take place around the world on December 7, right in the middle of these crucial climate talks.)
Now is the time to clean up our act, to sort out our life, to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light.
Now is the time to abandon whatever stupefies us and puts us to sleep – whether it be the call of consumerism or a fondness for cynicism or helpless resignation.
Now is the time to look ahead and to embody a robust hope, for, as Paul says, “the night is far gone, the day is near” (Romans 13:12). It’s as if we were standing in the doorway of a dark house, looking out to the hills beyond, and in the sky we can see the first glimmer of sunrise. Behind us is darkness, but ahead of us, light.
Christ has come, so the dawn is shining on our faces.
Christ is here, so we know we are not alone.
Christ will come again, so we step out boldly through the doorway, leaving everything less than love behind.
1. James Gustave Speth, The Bridge on the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008, p. x (Preface).
When we think about climate change, we often focus on the outer landscape, such as how the rising level of greenhouse gases affects the planet’s oceans and continents, its animals, plants and human societies. Gazing at the landscape outside us, we know that the news is grim. The web of life is unraveling. As Bill McKibben succinctly puts it, “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”
But what about our inner landscape? That’s the question that interests me here. Given what we know about the crisis in which we find ourselves, what happens to the emotional and spiritual dimension of our lives? How do we face our fear and grief without being overwhelmed? How do we move out of denial and despair into a life that is filled with purpose, even joy? What will sustain our spirits as we struggle to sustain the Earth?
We need people – in fact, we need lots of people – who are willing to face the most challenging, even devastating facts, people who are learning how to enlarge their reserves of courage, faith, and hope, people who will step out to bear witness in very concrete ways to the God in whom we live and move and have our being, and who entrusted the world to our care.
So here is a 3-part framework for the heart, a way of “holding” the climate crisis in a way that helps us to respond wisely and creatively to the challenges we face. I’ll sketch a spiritual journey in which we cultivate an awakened heart, a broken heart, and a radiant heart.
We begin with an awakened heart. What is an awakened heart? It is a heart that is more and more deeply, more and more frequently, more and more consciously attuned to love. A person with an awakened heart is someone whose heart is repeatedly touched by a boundless love that seems to well up from nowhere or that unexpectedly shines out in the world around. A person with an awakened heart is someone who is learning to see themselves, and others, and all creation, with eyes of love in each and every present moment. This is when we perceive the beauty and preciousness of God’s creation. We experience gratefulness, wonder, amazement, awe. We discover how cherished we are as creatures that are part of creation.
Experiencing our God-given preciousness is a powerful antidote to the messages we hear that human beings are “a cancer on the planet,” a “virus” taking down life. I understand the anger and deep frustration behind such statements, the anger that is evoked by the enormous damage that humans are doing to the ecosystems on which all life depends. It’s true that our industrial economy, based on fossil fuels, is acting like a cancer that takes down life. But the only way forward is not to feed the voice of self-hatred, but instead to listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts and that alone can guide us on a new path. As I see it, all the world’s religious practices, from mindfulness meditation to practicing gratitude, are disciplines we’ve been given to help our hearts awaken.
As we walk forward with awakened hearts we experience a broken heart. Of course none of us wants to move into this second stage of the journey, and there are many reasons we fear and repress our grief. As Joanna Macy, the Buddhist ecophilosopher, points out, we don’t want to feel pain; we don’t want to look morbid; we don’t want to bring other people down; we don’t want to seem weak and emotional. And yet we do feel pain for the world. We can’t help it. No one is exempt from it, because we’re part of the whole, and suffering in one place ripples across the planet.
So, as you consider the suffering caused by climate change, where do you feel the grief? What are the tears you need to shed? What is breaking your heart? And how do we open to the pain of our precious world without drowning in the pain? The divine love in which we participate does not close itself off from suffering, but enters it, shares it, and touches it with love. For Christians, the symbol of that divine sharing in our suffering is the cross of Christ. So, as a Christian, I go in prayer to the cross, where I believe that everything in us – our pain and anger, our grief, our guilt – is perpetually met by the mercy and love of God. One way or another, all the world’s spiritual traditions teach that there is no escape from suffering and that, paradoxically, a broken heart can be the gateway to hope and even joy.
Now comes the third part of this spiritual framework. Filled with love, because day by day our heart is awakened, and wide open to our suffering and the suffering of the world, we want the love that is flowing into our lives to pour out into the world around us. We have been cultivating an awakened heart, we are accepting a broken heart, and now we want to express what I’m calling a radiant heart. We want our lives to bear witness in tangible ways to the love that has set us free.
What we feel sent out to do can take many forms. Commitment to care for the earth will affect what we buy and what we refuse to buy, what we drive and what we refuse to drive, how we heat our homes, how much we re-use and re-cycle, and how ardently we join hands with other people to push for the enormous systemic changes that are required if we’re going to save life as it has evolved on this planet.
Yet just because we’re very busy doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re manifesting a radiant heart. For example, sometimes I get super-busy because I’ve lost touch with my basic preciousness: I think that I must prove my worth, demonstrate my value. Then I say to myself, “Margaret, remember that you’re cultivating an awakened heart. Let yourself rest in God’s goodness. Breathe in God’s love, recall how loved you already are, and let that energy carry you into the next situation.”
Or I get busy because I want to stay one step ahead of my feelings — I don’t want to feel the pain or grief; I’d much rather keep moving. Then I say to myself, “Margaret, remember that you’ve accepted a broken heart. Go back to the cross of Christ. Let yourself stop for a while and bring whatever you’re feeling to the crucified Christ, where everything in you – like it or not – is met with love.”
When we know that we’re cherished to the core and when our anguish is met again and again by the ever-merciful love of God, then our actions are more likely to spring from wisdom than from fear or compulsion, and we live with a new sense of spaciousness and freedom, unattached to results.
Attending to our inner landscape while we tend to the outer landscape can heal our souls and our communities, as well as the Earth itself.
Margaret gave this talk at “Spiritual and Sustainable: Religion Responds to Climate Change,” an interfaith conference held at Harvard Divinity School on November 7, 2014, which focused on addressing the issues and challenges of maintaining a sustainable planet. Other panelists included Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Tim DeChristopher, Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman, Lama Willa Miller, and Munjed M. Murad, with Professor Prof. Dan McKanan serving as moderator.
1. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010, p. xiii and book jacket.
Divestment comes in many forms.
In the hectic last days before the People’s Climate March in New York City, I finally put everything down. I abandon email. I relinquish the phone and turn off the computer. I drop my tasks and leave behind the scribbled lists of Things To Do that are piling up on my desk.
I step outside. Ah! Fresh air!
I inhale a deep breath, let it go, and look around. On this late summer day, the field behind our home in the Berkshire foothills is aglow with asters and goldenrod. Jewelweed crowds the edges of the beaver pond. The blackberries are long gone, but I savor a last handful of blueberries. While exploring the edges of the pond, I spot the tracks of a blue heron on a flat stone beneath the water’s surface. Are those otter prints that are heading the other way?
For a long time I stand barefoot on a cold patch of moss beneath a hemlock tree, noticing the rise and fall of my breath and listening attentively to the soft gurgle of a stream, the occasional chatter of a chickadee, and the sharp cry of a hawk overhead. Most of the songbirds have left by now, and the tender green ferns that I watched unfurl this spring have turned brown. The fields and woods of New England are divesting themselves of summer’s glory as the season turns toward fall.
Scientists report that this past August was the hottest month yet since record-keeping began. If we intend to avert climate catastrophe and to build a sustainable, just, and low-carbon future, now is the time to divest from fossil fuels and to re-invest those funds in clean, safe, renewable energy. As the resolution explains in its opening paragraph, “Scripture tells us that all the world is God’s precious creation, and our place within it is to respect and care for its health. We therefore have a spiritual and moral obligation not to profit from damage inflicted on God’s creation by the production and use of fuels that hurt the environment, and a corresponding obligation to seek out and invest in ways to promote its healing and health.” (Read the full text of the resolution here.)
I just discovered a Website that provides both the rationale and the resources for individuals and foundations to divest from fossil fuels and invest in climate solutions. Divest-Invest provides a strategy by which both individual donors and philanthropic foundations can break the grip of the fossil fuel industry on public policy and model the energy transition that societies worldwide need to make.
Divesting and re-investing create a rhythm that sustains life. In all kinds of ways, we let go and we take hold. We release and we welcome. We breathe out and we breathe in. The question is when and in what to divest, and when and in what to re-invest. What do we need to relinquish in order to step into fullness of life? What do we need to take hold of, to take up or re-claim, in order for life to flourish?
As I envision it, the People’s Climate March that so many of us will join on September 21, will not only be the largest and most diverse climate march ever held – it will also be a shared act of divestment and re-investment.
We will divest from the routine of an ordinary day, divest from inertia, divest from sitting on the sidelines and waiting for someone else to speak up.
We will divest from helplessness and isolation, from cynicism, resignation, and solitary hand-wringing.
We will invest in the possibility that a strong, diverse grassroots movement can build moral, political, and spiritual momentum for a strong U.N. treaty that actually reduces fossil fuel emissions and protects the poor and the most vulnerable.
We will invest in the possibility that we can safeguard life as it has evolved on this planet.
We will invest in our renewed commitment, as individuals and as a society, to make the changes that are necessary to sustain the integrity of the biosphere.
We will invest in our future and our planet’s future.
We will invest in hope.
To watch the newly released film, Disruption, which takes a look at the consequences of inaction on climate and makes a compelling call for bold collective action, click here.
Ultimately, the only clean, safe, renewable energy that can sustain human beings is the power of love. This weekend I will travel to New York and join the People’s Climate March for all kinds of personal reasons – because I love my son, because I love my grandchildren, because I love the holy Mystery that creates and sustains life. As I walk through the streets of New York, I will carry in my heart all the creatures whose presence bless my life on this late-summer day: jewelweed and hemlock tree; otter, hawk, and blue heron. I will give thanks for the divine Breath that breathes us out and breathes us in, and bids us to take a stand for life.