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.”
June 30, 2020
This is the third 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.Hosea 4:1-3
Faith for the Earth: What is breaking our hearts?
We spoke yesterday about God inviting us to listen deeply, especially to voices that have long been silenced or ignored – to the voices of the poor, the voices of black and brown and indigenous peoples, and to the voices rising from the living Earth itself – for if we listen with the ear of the heart, surely we can hear, as the prophet Hosea puts it in today’s reading, that the land itself is mourning, “and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing.”
How do we pray with all this? How do we pray with the things that are breaking our hearts – the dying coral and acidifying oceans, the animals that are leaving us, and the web of life that is unraveling before our lives? Scientists say that unless we change our way of living fast, entire eco-systems could begin to collapse, starting in the next ten years. What do we do with this information? Do we shrug it off (I can’t deal with that! That’s someone else’s problem!)? Do we shut down inside, go numb and slip into despair? It’s difficult to face the predicament in which we find ourselves, and our culture gives us endless opportunities to turn away and distract ourselves with mindless consumption and entertainment. Still, I don’t think any of us have found that shopping or snacking or swilling alcohol can ease the anguish we feel inside.
In my view, one essential remedy is prayer. Bold action is urgent and necessary, but action alone won’t give us the strength or wisdom to sustain the hard struggles ahead. And if Hosea got it right – if what’s ultimately wrong with the world is that there is “no knowledge of God in the land,” if he’s right that the ultimate source of our troubles is spiritual disconnection – then surely part of the remedy is prayer. For, as Hosea says, when there is “no knowledge of God,” then “swearing, lying, and murder” break out among human beings – “bloodshed follows bloodshed” – and the land mourns, and wild creatures languish and perish. Hosea understands that a broken relationship with God leads to a broken relationship with each other and with the Earth. If we abandon the love and justice of God and get locked into patterns of abusing each other and abusing the land, the remedy is repentance and amendment of life. The remedy is to dismantle the systems that exploit people and the planet. The remedy is to restore our connection to God, to our souls, to each other, and to the Earth upon which all life depends.
So I’m all in with Hosea. The climate crisis is not just a scientific or political or economic crisis – it’s also a spiritual crisis, one that summons us to do everything we can to restore within ourselves – and to encourage in our communities – a lively, vital relationship with our divine Source who brings courage where there is despair, love where there is hate, and inspiration when a path forward is hard to see. In these challenging times, we need spiritual resilience. We need to connect with the divine lover of our souls. We need to root ourselves in the presence of a Higher Power so that we can rise up to take effective action.
Last year, a book I co-edited with a friend of mine, Leah Schade, was published. It’s an anthology of essays by 21 colleagues in the faith-and-climate movement who speak about the spiritual practices and perspectives that sustain us as we work to create a more just and sustainable future. The book is titled Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, and I’d like to read a short excerpt from my chapter, for it’s all about prayer.1In times like these, our prayer may need to be expressive and embodied, visceral and vocal. How else can we pray with our immense anger and grief? How else can we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth and upon ourselves? How else can we break through our inertia and despair, so that we don’t shut down and go numb? …It’s important to protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis, for that is how we stay inwardly vital and alive. Just as important, our emotions can become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency. Prayerful lament and protest can be an act of resistance, a way of shaking off the dominant consumer culture, which prefers that we stay too busy, dazed, and distracted to feel a thing.My prayer takes many forms. Recently a company began cutting down trees in the woods behind my home, clearing space for co-housing, an intentional neighborhood of private homes that share a common area and develop a strong sense of community. I’m all for co-housing and I’ve met some nice people who plan to live there, but, honestly, I grieve the trees. They have been companions to me, and sources of beauty. They are living presences that I know play a vital role in keeping life on Earth intact. Scientists tell us that we can’t stabilize the climate unless we save trees. Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change.2Because of all this, I’ve taken to praying outdoors. I go outside, feel the good earth beneath my feet and the wind on my face, and I sing to the trees, to oak and beech, hemlock and pines. Making up the words and music as I go along, I sing my grief to the trees that are going down, and my grief for so much more – for what we have lost and are losing, and for what we are likely to lose. I sing my outrage about these beautiful old trees being cut to the roots, their bodies chipped to bits and hauled away to sell. I sing my fury about the predicament we’re in as a species. I sing my protest of the political and corporate powers-that-be that drive forward relentlessly with business as usual, razing forests, drilling for more oil and fracked gas, digging for more coal, expanding pipeline construction, and opening up public lands and waters to endless exploitation, as if Earth were their private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. I sing out my shame to the trees, my repentance and apology for the part I have played in Earth’s destruction and for the part my ancestors played when they stole land from the Native peoples who lived here and chopped down the original forests. I sing my praise for the beauty of trees, and my resolve not to let a day go by that I don’t celebrate the precious living world of which we are so blessedly a part. I’m not finished until I sing my determination to renew action for trees and all of God’s Creation.I feel God’s presence when I pray like that. I dare to believe that the Spirit who longs to renew the face of the Earth is praying through me. Praying like this leaves me feeling more alive, more connected with myself and with the world I love.
What kinds of prayer restore your connection with God? These days many people across the country are praying in the streets, propelled by love and a fierce need for public mourning and public lament.3 Some people are praying alone in their rooms and in silence, listening to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts, listening to their breath as they breathe God in and breathe God out. Some people find that music helps them pray, and I commend a new piece called “A Passion for the Planet,” a climate oratorio composed by Geoffrey Hudson, which, broadcast free on the internet, in less than one hour carries the listener through the wide range of feelings evoked by the climate crisis. That can be another way to pray.
I encourage all of us to pray, to find ways, as Hosea might put it, to restore knowledge of God in the land. Prayer is what leads us, alone and together, into an unshakable union with a love that is stronger than death. Trusting in that love, guided by that love, we will know what is ours to do and, God willing, may be led to take actions commensurate with the emergency we are in.
1. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “Love Every Leaf,” Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis(Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 175-76.
2. “We Can’t Save the Climate Without Also Saving the Trees. Scientists agree: Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change,” by John J. Berger, Sierra Magazine, October 29, 2018.
3. Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, “Accepting Death is Not an Option, Anymore,” a sermon preached at Washington National Cathedral, June 14, 2020
“Do not let your hearts be troubled”:
Searching for steadiness in a precarious time
Today’s Gospel – and the Gospel readings for the next two Sundays – are from the section of John’s Gospel called Jesus’ “farewell discourse.” It is the night of the Last Supper, and Jesus is saying goodbye, telling his disciples that even though he will soon leave them physically, his presence and power and spirit will come to them and remain with them always. Jesus says to his friends: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also’” (John 14:1-3).
The passage goes on from there, but my attention was grabbed by the very first sentence. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” How do we make sense of those words – how do those words resonate within us – in a time of such enormous uncertainty, loss, and fear? Here we are, in the midst of a global pandemic. Our lives have suddenly turned upside down and we are acutely aware of our vulnerability to suffering and death. People we know and love may be sick or may have died. Businesses have closed, the economy is teetering, and not far behind, coming on fast, we know that an even larger crisis is bearing down upon us, the climate and ecological crisis. Week by week the news from climate science seems to get more dire: this year is on track to be the warmest on record, and the risk of climate breakdown is much greater than we thought. This week, scientists reported that 50 years from now as many as one-third of the world’s people will be living in areas too hot to inhabit. I can only begin to imagine the poverty and famine and the numbers of desperate migrants on the move. Meanwhile, another new study shows that unchecked climate change could collapse entire eco-systems quite abruptly, starting within the next ten years.
This precious blue-green planet is reeling – and we reel with it as we face the threat of social and ecological collapse. Yet Jesus tells us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” What can this mean when we live in such a troubling time? Is he counseling avoidance and denial? Is he urging us to go numb – to repress and push away our anger, grief, and fear? I can’t imagine that to be the case, for the Jesus I meet in the Gospels and in prayer – and who is with us right now – is a man of deep feelings, a man who was not afraid to enjoy a good laugh and relish a good party, a man who sometimes got angry, who wept when his friend Lazarus died and who wept over the city that would not listen to him. The Jesus I love is a man who was open to the full range of human emotion and who experiences our sorrows and joys.
Last week I woke up in the middle of the night, feeling as if I were covered by a great blanket of sadness, as if the sorrow of the whole world were weighing me down. Nearby the sorrow was fear: fear of death, fear that everything is unraveling, fear that life on Earth, including human society, is coming apart. So, what did I do? I prayed. I turned to Jesus and prayed for mercy, guidance and help. It wasn’t just my own sorrow and fear that I brought to him: I felt as if I were bringing with me all the world’s sorrow and fear and placing it in his loving arms: Here, Lord, over to you. Share it with me. Help me bear what I cannot bear alone.
As I lay there in the dark, praying the world’s anguish, sorrow, and fear, it seemed to me that I was not alone: I was praying with, and for, all my brother-sister beings – for the dying coral and the seas choked with plastic, for the forests going up in smoke and for the children who look to us with their innocent, wondering eyes, hoping against hope that good, and not ill, will be done to them. And it seemed to me that Jesus was with me and with all of us, sharing our pain, and I felt as if I were touching into the peace that passes understanding and into the love that will never die.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” When Jesus said this, he wasn’t denying the reality of suffering and death. He wasn’t repressing his emotions or dodging painful facts: he knew full well that he was on the brink of being arrested, tortured, and killed. Yet he was able to say to his friends, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” How? Because he was rooted in the love of God. Because he knew that nothing could separate him – or us – from that love. Because he knew that through the power of his Spirit, we would be drawn, as he was drawn, into the divine life that circulates at the center of everything and that can never be destroyed.
That is the great promise of today’s Gospel passage: at the deepest level of our being we belong to God; we abide in God and God abides in us.
This precarious time of coronavirus and climate crisis is also a holy time: a time when all of us are invited to deepen our spiritual lives and to grow up to our full stature in Christ. So, I want to suggest three practices as we shelter in place, three practices that I hope will attune us to the presence and power of Jesus as we try to chart a path to a more just and sustainable future.
First, I hope we will take regular time to pray in silence. Solitude and silence can create a wonderful context for prayer. As Meister Eckhart, the great mystic, once said, “There is nothing so much like God in all the universe as silence.” As we sit alone in silence, we listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts, although we are usually too busy or too distracted to hear it. We pay attention to our breathing, receiving each breath as the gift that it is, a gift from a loving God who breathes God’s Spirit into us and whose Spirit we offer back to God as we breathe out. And if – in the quiet – strong feelings arise, we welcome them and let them move through us, whatever they are – sorrow, fear, anger or joy – knowing that in our vulnerability we find strength and that the God of love is always with us. This kind of quiet, solitary prayer is where we can gradually develop a trusting and very personal relationship with Jesus, as we disclose what is on our hearts.
Second, I hope we will take regular time to go outside and connect with the natural world. The love of God extends not only to us, not only to human beings – it extends to the whole created world and to its weird and wild diversity of living creatures. Our planet’s living systems are in peril, so it is good – actually, it is essential – to reclaim our God-given connection with the Earth, to move, as Thomas Berry would say, from a spirituality of alienation from Earth to a spirituality of intimacy. So, go outside and encounter the God who shines out in the blooming magnolias and azaleas, in the breeze on our faces, in the cry of the blue jay, in the touch of bark or stone against our hand and in the sprouts coming up in our garden. Whatever we’re worried about – be it climate change, coronavirus, or anything else – spending at least 20 minutes a day in a peaceful place can help restore our soul.
Third, I hope we will make time to educate ourselves about the climate crisis and to take every step we can toward effective climate action. When the pandemic has passed and the lockdown is over, we simply can’t go back to business as usual, for business as usual is killing the planet. As a society we have to change course. Depending on non-renewable energy and resources is by definition unsustainable. Consuming more resources than the planet can provide is by definition unsustainable. Wiping out wilderness habitat and the innumerable species upon which our species depends is by definition unsustainable. Producing a killing level of greenhouse gases is by definition unsustainable. We are living beyond our ecological means.
The good news is that when it comes to climate change, there is so much we can do! 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. So, we’ll need to use our voices and our votes, and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. I hope that many of you will join 350Mass for a Better Future, our local grassroots climate action group, whose MetroWest node includes Lincoln. There are other groups that we can be grateful for, too, and find ways to support, such as Poor People’s Campaign, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and Environmental Voter Project. Together we need to grow the boldest, most visionary, wide-ranging, powerful, hope-filled, hands-on, feet-on-the-ground, shoulder-to-the-wheel political and social movement that humanity has ever seen.
I pray that we followers of Jesus will take our place in that movement, maybe even be out in front sometimes, singing and praying, maybe risking arrest, as we give glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).
In a time of pandemic and climate crisis, the risen Christ is among us and within us. Do not let your hearts be troubled.
Here we are this afternoon, gathered from our different neighborhoods, towns, and faith communities, like embers coming together to build up a fire. If you scatter the embers of a fire, they fizzle out. But if you bring them together, maybe blow on them a little, maybe add more fuel, before long you’ve got a roaring blaze. So let’s talk about fire.
Fire is on our minds these days. Many of us have watched videos of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager with the round face and the straight blonde hair and those fierce, unyielding eyes, speaking with such intensity to the US Congress, to the UN COP meeting, to the World Economic Forum, telling the world – telling the adults who have failed to take action – “The house is on fire.” Our planetary home is on fire. It’s going up in flames.
Three kinds of fire
Last week I listened to Naomi Klein speak about her new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal (NY: Simon and Schuster: 2019), and what I want to say is inspired by her remarks. Naomi Klein pointed out that actually we are dealing with two fires: one is the fire of a scorching planet as the climate crisis deepens. We know what that looks like: extracting and burning fossil fuels is warming the global atmosphere and setting new records for heat, month after month. Climate disruption is sparking wildfires in the Arctic and around the world; it’s causing massive droughts and record floods, monster hurricanes and rising seas. Parts of the planet will soon be too hot to inhabit, and the space in which human beings can survive is contracting. Last year the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that in order to avert a catastrophic level of climate change, anything beyond a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperature, we have only a short span of time – at this point, maybe eleven years – in which to initiate a transformation of our society and economy at a scale and speed that is historically unprecedented.
That’s Fire Number 1, the fire studied by climate science. Fire Number 2 is the fire of hatred. When people feel threatened, they can turn to a “strong man,” an authoritarian figure who promises to keep them safe by denying the humanity of other groups of people, by “othering” people who are weak or vulnerable or historically marginalized, the people who are not like us. This second fire is also raging, jumping from country to country: it’s alight in Brazil, in Turkey, and here in the U.S. Hatred says that some people are more worthy than others, that some people – the other people – should be left to drown or starve or die of heat – that’s not our problem, since we are the winners and they are the losers. Hatred is the voice of white supremacy and of every form of domination, greed, and exploitation.
So two fires are ablaze around the world, and feeding each other, but Naomi Klein pointed out that there is a third fire, too: our fire, the fire of our movement coming together at last – the youth climate strikes, the indigenous rights movement, the fossil fuel divestment movement, the climate justice movement, the frontline movement – and, I would add, the faith and environment movement – all of us coming together to douse the first two fires, and forge a path to a better future.
Naomi Klein didn’t say this, but I would call the third fire, the fire of love. This is where communities of faith have a vital role to play, for our task as faith communities, our vocation – indeed, our very reason for existence – is to tend and build the fire of love. How do we access that fire? How do throw off our helplessness, inertia, and despair, reach into our deep reserves of wisdom and courage, and rise up to take part into the movement to heal the web of life? I’m very interested in that question – so interested, in fact, that a friend and I asked colleagues in the faith and environment movement to write about their sources of spiritual strength. What gives them courage? What gives them hope? Our anthology of essays will be published on November 15 and it’s called Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis.
Three ways to build love’s fire
I’d like to name three ways that individuals and communities of faith can build the fire of love in this precarious time.
First, we can teach practices that nourish the heart. For instance, go outdoors and fall in love again – or for the first time – with the natural world. Let the wind or the tree, the hoot of an owl or the shining face of the moon – let them speak to you of the love of God. The natural world saves us just as much as we save the natural world – the healing is mutual, for we belong to each other; we are kin.
Rediscovering the sacredness of the web of life can nourish the heart.
So can the practice of gratitude, the discovery that everything is gift – this moment, this breath – ah! It’s all gift! What a blessing to be alive just now, and at a time when our choices make such a difference!
Or again, we nourish the heart when we move through each day mindfully, paying attention, remembering that every person we meet is precious in God’s sight and worthy of care and respect.
That’s the first great gift that communities of faith can give the world in such a frightening time: practices of prayer and community, practices of meditation and story-telling, practices of singing and ceremony, that connect us with a sacred, loving Power beyond ourselves. Sharing practices that nourish the heart – that’s the first thing we can do to tend the fire of love.
Second, we can create spaces and ceremonies that allow our hearts to break. All of us need to grieve. We have lost so much, and we face more loss ahead. How do we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth and upon ourselves? The climate crisis can overwhelm us and make us go numb. But it is important to protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis, for that is how we stay inwardly vital and alive. What’s more, our emotions can become a source of energy for action to address the emergency.
So I’ll tell a story about grief that I included in my chapter for Rooted and Rising.
Recently a company began cutting down trees in the woods behind my home, clearing space for co-housing, an intentional neighborhood of private homes that share a common area and develop a strong sense of community. I’m all for co-housing and I’ve met some nice people who plan to live there, but, honestly, I grieve the trees. They have been companions to me, and sources of beauty. They are living presences that I know play a vital role in keeping life on Earth intact. Scientists tell us that we can’t stabilize the climate unless we save trees. Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change.1
Because of all this, I’ve taken to praying outdoors. I go outside, feel the good earth beneath my feet and the wind on my face, and I sing to the trees, to oak and beech, hemlock and pines. Making up the words and music as I go along, I sing my grief to the trees that are going down, and my grief for so much more – for what we have lost and are losing, and for what we are likely to lose. I sing my outrage about these beautiful old trees being cut to the roots, their bodies chipped to bits and hauled away to sell. I sing my fury about the predicament we’re in as a species. I sing my protest of the political and corporate powers-that-be that drive forward relentlessly with business as usual, razing forests, drilling for more oil and fracked gas, digging for more coal, expanding pipeline construction, and opening up public lands and waters to endless exploitation, as if Earth were their private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. I sing out my shame to the trees, my repentance and apology for the part I have played in Earth’s destruction and for the part my ancestors played when they stole land from the Native peoples who lived here and chopped down the original forests. I sing my praise for the beauty of trees, and my resolve not to let a day go by that I don’t celebrate the precious living world of which we are so blessedly a part. I’m not finished until I sing my determination to renew action for trees and all of God’s Creation.
I feel God’s presence when I pray like that. I dare to believe that the Spirit who longs to renew the face of the Earth is praying through me. Praying like this leaves me feeling more alive, more connected with myself and with the world I love.
Here’s a third way that faith communities can tend the fire of love: we take up actions to heal the planet as a form of spiritual practice. When it comes to climate change, there is so much we can do! Maybe we can plant trees. Save trees. Recycle more. Drive less. Drive electric. Eat local, eat organic, eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet. Maybe we can support local farms and land trusts. We can fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels. If we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest, as well.
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. So we’ll need to use our voices and our votes and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. Now is the time to join the climate movement that Naomi Klein described – we might start by signing up with 350.org, the world’s first global grassroots climate network. Because of the fire in our hearts that burns for a better world, a world in which our children and all beings can thrive, we may feel called to carry out acts of civil disobedience to interrupt the runaway juggernaut of “business as usual” that is wrecking the planet.
Everything we do for Earth and her communities, human and other-than-human, can become a spiritual practice – something we do mindfully, gratefully, and with love for God and God’s whole Creation.
So let’s do it, friends. Let’s make it happen. Let’s set the world on fire.
“We Can’t Save the Climate Without Also Saving the Trees. Scientists agree: Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change,” by John J. Berger, Sierra Magazine, October 29, 2018 (https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/we-can-t-save-climate-without-also-saving-trees).
This is the text of the keynote address that Margaret gave at the forum,”Reality, Hope and Action in an Age of Climate Change,” organized by Inter-Religious Eco-Justice Network and held at St. James Episcopal Church, New London, CT, on October 20, 2019.
Our planet keeps setting records for heat. This week – at long last – a different record was set: the biggest day of climate protest in world history.
On September 19, the day before the Global Climate Strike, I returned home from an intensive mission trip along the coast of California, where I preached, led retreats and workshops, and spoke in multiple cities about the climate crisis. It was the first time I’d met people who had so recently and directly experienced the disastrous effects of climate change, from massive heat waves, droughts and wildfires to torrential rainfall and mudslides. I didn’t need to say very much about the urgency of the situation – I could tell from the alarming stories they shared and the concern in their faces that they already understood: we need as a species to change course fast. From Santa Barbara to Cupertino I urged everyone I met to join the weeklong Global Climate Strike.
Back in western Massachusetts on September 20, I spoke at two Climate Strike events in my corner of the world, Springfield and Northampton. Below are the notes for my remarks.
Springfield Climate Vigil: Standing for life
Under a hot sun, sixty or seventy people gathered at Court Square, Springfield, MA, for a climate solidarity vigil filled with music, speaking, and prayer. Organized by Verne McArthur, the vigil featured speakers including Buddhist teacher Jin Haeng Kyle Wiswall, Springfield City Councilor-at-Large Jesse Lederman, Deacon Bill Toller (who read a statement by U.S. Roman Catholic bishops on the need for climate action), Rev. Jason Seymour (Unitarian Universalist Society of Greater Springfield), Sister Melinda Pellerin-Duck (Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield), and me. Rev. Marisa Brown Ludwig joined Verne in leading the singing. Here is what I said:
I am grateful to be standing with you! In my tradition there is a story of God’s people standing at a crossroads. They have a choice to make, and Moses says to them: “Today I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
We, too, stand at a crossroads. We are living at a pivotal moment in human history, where the choices we make going forward will make all the difference to the wellbeing of our children and our children’s children, and to the life – or death – of billions of people and non-human species around the world.
We know we have a choice. Today, at this crossroads, we stand for life.
You know that we face a long struggle ahead. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has told us that we need to transform our society at a rate and scale that are historically unprecedented. This task will demand all our reserves of strength and courage. We need spiritual resilience. So it’s good to know where we are rooted and where we find strength.
Where does our strength come from? We begin by knowing where we stand.
We stand on Mother Earth. I invite you to feel your feet on the ground and to feel the good Earth holding you up. We can imagine our roots going down deep into the Earth, and from deep within Mother Earth we are drawing up strength.
We also stand with trees and all green-growing things.
We stand with other creatures – our brother-sister beings;
with children and young people who long to inherit a habitable planet; and
with the marginalized and poor, the people most vulnerable to climate change.
We stand with everyone who is suffering right now from floods, droughts, and storms,
and with the millions of people worldwide who are rising up to say that they won’t settle
for a death-dealing way of life.
We stand for a better future.
We stand for the possibility that love, not hate, will have the last word.
We stand for the possibility that our species will learn wisdom and compassion, generosity and self-control, so that we become at last what we were made to be: a blessing on the Earth.
And we stand in something, too. What do we stand in?
We stand in love.
We stand in the divine love that is always being poured into our hearts,
in the love that will never let us go and that will be with us till our journey’s end.
We stand in the love that nothing, not even death, can destroy.
We stand in the love whose power, working through us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
You and I – we stand for life. Thank you!
Climate Emergency March for a Just Future, Northampton: A blessing
Late in the afternoon, many hundreds of people marched from Sheldon Field to downtown Northampton for a rally at City Hall. Organized by Marty Nathan (Climate Action NOW of Western Massachusetts), the rally featured music (led by Peter Blood and Paul Kaplan, and by Expandable Brass Band) and a range of speakers, including State Senator Jo Comerford, City Council President Ryan O’Donnell, Barb Madeloni (Labor Notes and past President, Massachusetts Teachers Association), Victor Davila (Neighbor to Neighbor Springfield), Maeve McCurdy (Divest Smith), State. Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, Patrick Burke (SEIU and Hampshire Labor Council), Andrea Schmid (Pioneer Valley Workers Center), and Kate Parrott (teacher at JFK Middle School).
Rabbi David Seidenberg (Prayerground Minyan) and I offered closing blessings. After each of us had prayed, the Rabbi blew his shofar to complete the rally. My blessing, more or less as delivered, is below.
Friends, we have good work to do and we face great challenges ahead. We need to root ourselves in our deep sources of wisdom, strength, and courage. This is a good time to turn to a power greater than ourselves, one that we know by many names: Great Spirit, loving Mystery, Creator and Sustainer of life. Dante called it “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Trusting in that sacred power, we can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
I’d like to offer a blessing that I adapted from a Franciscan prayer1 that may be familiar to some of you. I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer.
May God bless us with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
So that we may live deep within our heart.
May God bless us with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people and the Earth,
So that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace, and pass along to the next generation a habitable world.
May God bless us with tears
To shed for people and all our brother-sister beings who suffer from the effects of climate change,
So that we may reach out our hands to comfort them
And turn their pain into joy, and our grief into action.
And may God bless us with enough foolishness
To believe that we can make a difference in the world,
So that we can do what others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness to children, to the poor, and to the whole of God’s Creation.
1. The source of this prayer is unclear. One Website attributes it to Craig Groeschel: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/280711-may-god-bless-you-with-discomfort-at-easy-answers-half
The original version reads:
May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
So that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them
And turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness
To believe that you can make a difference in the world,
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.
This essay is based on opening remarks by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at a Community Forum, “Tackling the climate crisis now,” held at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sandwich, MA, on November 4, 2018. The other speakers were Dr. Philip B. Duffy (President and Executive Director, Woods Hole Research Center) and the Rev. Dr. Paul Minus (Co-Chair of the Cape & Island Faith Communities Environmental Network). The event was part of a new initiative in Massachusetts to bring together scientists and faith leaders in a shared effort to address the climate crisis.
I brought two props with me: a globe and an icon. The globe represents the world outside us: the precious living planet into which we were born, with its complex eco-systems, its lands and waters, its diverse multitude of creatures, and its delicate balance of gases that make up the global atmosphere. The globe represents the outer landscape – what science studies.
The icon represents the world we carry inside us: how we make meaning, what we value and consider important, what motivates us, what we feel, what we long for, how we choose to act. The icon represents the inner landscape – what religion explores.
Scientists have done their job – they’ve conducted research, carried out experiments – and now they are speaking with increasing alarm about threats to the web of life and to human civilization. In the last few weeks we’ve experienced a one-two punch. The World Wildlife Fund just reported that 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles have been wiped out since 1970. This massive annihilation of wildlife now threatens human civilization, which depends on a healthy natural world. And several weeks ago the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a major report that shows that planetary warming is well underway and that time is running out to avert climate catastrophe: we have maybe ten or twelve years. To avoid runaway climate change will require a radical transformation of society from top to bottom at a scale and pace that are historically unprecedented: never before in human history has our species changed its way of living that dramatically and that fast.
The question is how we will respond. This is where communities of faith have a vital role to play. In order to mobilize an effective response to the climate crisis, we need hard science and we need deep faith; we need facts and we need a moral compass; we need clear heads and we need open hearts.
We need the wisdom of our whole selves, and we need the help and skills of every sector of society if we are going to preserve a habitable planet for our children’s children.
I’d like to name four of the many roles that faith communities can play:
People who are secretly worried about climate change often don’t take action because they feel helpless and overwhelmed. It’s easy to shut down, throw up our hands and call it quits. “It’s too late,” we tell ourselves. “What difference can I make? It’s not my problem. Someone else will have to deal with it. Besides, the world is cooked. We’re done for. I might as well put my head down, go shopping, check the score, grab a beer.” It’s easy to collapse into fatalism or despair. Strictly speaking we may not be climate skeptics – we do respect climate science, we do understand that burning fossil fuels is disrupting the global climate and threatening the whole human enterprise – but most of us engage in a kind of everyday climate denial: we don’t want to talk about it, we don’t want to think about it, we don’t know what to do about it, and we surely don’t want to feel the emotions that this crisis evokes.
Faith communities address helplessness in many ways. When we gather for meditation or worship, we see each other’s faces, we hear each other’s voices, and we can take hold of each other’s hands. We feel the power of a community that longs, as we do, to create a better world. And we place ourselves in the presence of a Higher Power (Great Spirit, God, Creator) in whose presence we are uplifted and to whom we are accountable.
2) Offer rituals and practices of prayer and meditation that transform minds and hearts and set us on a good path Taking action is essential, but in order to discover what we are called to do – and to find the strength to do it – we need to open ourselves to a power and wisdom that is greater than our own. We need help. We need guidance.
In a time of climate crisis, we 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.
We also need to meditate and pray, recognizing, in the words of Terry Tempest Williams, “that we exist by the grace of something beyond ourselves.” What we consider prayer can take many forms. In times like these, our prayer may need to be expressive and embodied, visceral and vocal. How shall we pray with our immense anger and grief? How do we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth – and upon ourselves? The climate crisis can make us go numb. But it is important to protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis, for that is how we stay inwardly vital and alive. What’s more, our emotions can become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.
So I’ll tell a story. Over the past month a company has been cutting down trees in the woods behind our house, clearing space for a new co-housing development. I’m all for co-housing, and I’ve met some nice people who plan to live there, but, honestly, I grieve the trees. So I’ve taken to praying outdoors. I go outside, feel my feet on the good earth, feel the wind on my face, and I sing to the trees. I sing my grief to the trees that are going down, and my grief about so much more: about what we have lost and are losing and are likely to lose, making up the words and the music as I go along. I sing my rage about these beautiful old trees going down and about the predicament we’re in as a species, my protest of the political and corporate powers-that-be that drive forward relentlessly with business as usual, cutting down forests, drilling for more oil and fracked gas, digging for more coal, expanding pipeline construction, and opening up public lands and waters to endless exploitation, as if the Earth were their private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. I sing out my shame to the trees, my repentance and apology for the part I have played in Earth’s destruction. I sing out my thanks, my praise for the beauty of trees and my resolve not to let a day go by that I don’t celebrate the preciousness of the living world of which we are so blessedly a part.
Our prayer may be noisy and expressive, or it may be very quiet, the kind of prayer that depends on listening in stillness and silence with complete attention: listening to the crickets as they pulse at night, listening to the rain as it falls, listening to our breath as we breathe God in and breathe God out, listening to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our heart.
Experiencing our unshakable union with a love that is stronger than death guides us to actions commensurate with the emergency we are in.
3)Provide moral leadership
Climate change is obviously a scientific issue, an economic issue, a political issue, but it is also a moral issue, an issue of justice. The poorest nations and the poorest citizens in each nation are those most vulnerable to climate change, because of flooding, food shortages, and the loss of clean water. The front-line communities most affected by fossil fuel pollution are often low-income communities and communities of color.1 The poor are often the people least responsible for causing climate change, the people least equipped to protect themselves from its effects, and the people least likely to have a say in how decisions get made. Pope Francis’s landmark encyclical, Laudato Si, makes it crystal clear that healing the climate is closely connected with securing social justice, racial justice, environmental justice, and economic justice. And climate change is about intergenerational justice, too, for right now we are stealing a habitable Earth from our children. What is our moral responsibility to future generations? This weekend, Christians around the world are celebrating All Saints Day, and as I said in my sermon this morning, our task is to be a good ancestor.
4)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.
I’d like to mention one important new interfaith initiative: Living the Change. At LivingtheChange.net you can commit to making personal changes in the three key areas that most affect our personal carbon footprint: transportation, household energy use, and diet. (It turns out that eating less meat or no meat, and shifting to a plant-based diet, is one of the most climate-friendly things we can do.)
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.
The climate emergency is propelling people of different faiths to lobby for strong legislative action, such as putting a fair and rising price on carbon, and to join the divestment movement. In the footsteps of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., countless people of faith have been arrested in recent years in acts of non-violent resistance to fossil fuels. I have been arrested several times in interfaith protests against fossil fuels, and I consider those experiences some of the high points of my life. By engaging in civil disobedience, faith communities challenge the deathly status quo of “business as usual” and rouse society out of its apathy and inaction.
I am thankful for 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 take action — even if success is not assured — bearing witness to the presence and power of a love that abides within and around us and that nothing can destroy.
Saving Planet Earth: “Arise, my love, my fair one”
Friends, I feel blessed to be back in Vancouver, to see the mountains again and to ride a bike with my husband around Stanley Park. On our first day we took a boat trip out into the ocean, where we sighted humpback whales the size of a bus, lingering on the surface of the water, rolling, splashing and breaching in the waves. We also encountered a pod of transient orcas, which, as you know, are endangered. One of the orcas rose up out of the water to take a look at our boat, and, to our amazement, it and a second orca swam toward us very slowly and deliberately, right up to the side of the vessel. At the last moment they dove underneath, emerging a little distance behind us. It felt like a greeting, like a blessing, and some of us gasped with astonishment, some of us cheered and some of us were moved to tears. So before I do anything else I want to pass it on to you, that greeting and blessing from our orca kin, as we gather this morning to praise God.
The voice of God is speaking in our midst and in our depths, and it sings out clearly in our first reading, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (Song of Solomon 2:10). I need to hear that voice. I need to dwell in its presence, for honestly, I came to this city with a heavy heart. Back in the United States, I serve as Missioner for Creation Care for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and for the United Church of Christ across the state. In this ecumenical role, I travel from place to place, preaching, speaking and leading retreats about the sacredness of God’s Creation and our call to protect the web of life entrusted to our care – especially the urgency of addressing climate change. (If you want to see what I’m up to, please visit my Website, RevivingCreation.org, for articles and blog posts.)
I love my job, but it’s tough these days 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. My heart goes out to all of you who, a week or two ago, were choking on smoke from nearly 600 forest fires on the west coast, and facing an air quality advisory across most of the province that warned you not to breathe in the fine particulates. As I left Massachusetts, smoke from the fires raging here in the Pacific Northwest was causing a visible haze over New England.
What’s happening in Vancouver connects with what’s happening all over the world. Climate change caused by burning fossil fuels is raising temperatures, making heat waves more intense and more frequent, drying out soil and trees, and making wildfires spread. This summer, record-breaking temperatures gripped the globe from Japan to Algeria, from Canada to Greece. The global heat wave even set the Arctic Circle on fire. This year is on pace to be among the four hottest years on record, the other three being 2015, 2016, and 2017.
Despite these accelerating signs of distress, and with more scorching heat to come if we don’t change course fast, the powers-that-be relentlessly drive forward with business as usual, drilling for more oil, pushing to expand pipeline construction, cutting down forests, and generally acting as if the Earth were a private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale.
I don’t know about you, but I know what it’s like to feel alarm, anger, sorrow, and even despair. As a species we are hurtling willy-nilly down a suicidal path that risks bringing down not only our own civilization but also the web of life as it has evolved for millennia. That is why I am moved to hear those words from the Song of Solomon (also known as the “Song of Songs”), moved to hear God say to us: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” You probably recognize this passage as one that’s often read at weddings. 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, and it turns out that Christian mystics wrote about the Song of Songs more extensively than they did about any other book in the Bible, interpreting these poems as a passionate conversation between God and the soul.
In a precarious time – when many of us feel unsettled about the present and worried about the future, when many of us may feel anxious and alone, overwhelmed by challenges in our personal lives and doubtful that we can make a difference in the world around us – it is powerful 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 and with God. For here is God, reaching out a hand to pull us into the dance of life. That’s one way of understanding 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, my fair one, and come away.”
The inner voice of love is quiet. We can hardly hear it amidst the roar and bustle of the world. We can hardly sense it when we’re gripped by depression, anxiety, 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 set aside some time in solitude each day to steady our minds and to listen in silence for the love that God is always pouring into our hearts (Romans 5:5).
As our minds grow quiet and as our stillness grows, a holy Someone – capital S – beckons to us in the silence: “Arise, my love, my fair one, 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. You are my fair one. I see your beauty 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. 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. I am so very small.”
“What can I do? What can anyone 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 do.”
The voice of love is like that, right? It may be gentle, but it is persistent. It may be subtle, but it will never die. The love that created the universe, the love that stirs in our depths, the love that is being poured into our hearts – that holy love will never let us go, and it sends us out into the world to become beacons of light, and 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 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, my fair one, and come away.
When we stand in the holy presence of God we find 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 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 fly less, drive less, and eat less meat. Maybe we lobby for policies that support renewable energy and clean green jobs. Maybe we join the growing numbers of resolute and faith-filled people who carry out peaceful civil disobedience and put our bodies on the line. This Saturday, September 8, rallies and marches will be held worldwide in a global day of action called “Rise for Climate.” Several “Rise for Climate” events will be held right here in Vancouver, and I hope you will join one.
In whatever ways we step out to heal God’s creation and 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, and for the ways that you are already responding to its call: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”
Hundreds of people – including leaders and elders of Native American tribes from across the U.S. – assembled yesterday under a large tent at Agape, a Christian community in the woods of central Massachusetts that is dedicated to social justice, non-violence, and sustainable living. We were there to mark the 35th annual celebration of St. Francis Day at Agape, and it was a thrilling, even transformative day, a day of listening, drumming, and sacred ceremony, a day of mourning and celebration.
The keynote speaker was Chief Arvol Looking Horse, whom I had last seen in December, when I accepted the invitation that he extended to religious people across the country to come to Standing Rock for an interfaith day of prayer. A descendant of Sitting Bull, Chief Arvol Looking Horse was chosen at the age of 12 to become the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe. Now in his 60’s, Chief Arvol carries his long, lanky frame with the sorrow and dignity of a person who has looked deeply into suffering and who finds hope in the wellspring of sacred ceremony and practice.
I was honored to join two other Christians representing the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care in giving the Chief an award. Bishop Doug Fisher of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and my husband Robert Jonas, founder of the Christian-Buddhist prayer sanctuary, The Empty Bell, joined me in making brief remarks. We noted that members of the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care (NRCCC) come from the Abrahamic faiths, including Jews, Muslims, and Christians from various traditions – Roman Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, and Orthodox. Every year, the NRCCC bestows The Steward of God’s Creation Award on an individual who exhibits “courage and commitment in the caring and keeping of the earth in a heroic, distinguished and effective manner.”
The crowd erupted in applause when my husband announced, “This year, for the first time, NRCCC wishes to give its award not to a single person but to an entire people. In recognition of the spiritual and moral leadership of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Nations, the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care would like to present its 2017 Steward of God’s Creation award to the Sioux Nation.”
Bishop Fisher and I exchanged a glance. The mood was joyful. Should we change the mood and press on with our planned remarks? We made the decision swiftly and without a word: Yes, we would keep going and say the hard stuff.
Bishop Fisher delivered his remarks with clarity and conviction: “We are painfully aware of the history of Christian participation in the oppression, marginalization, and murder of First Nations peoples. We recognize the tragic consequences of the Doctrine of Discovery, which gave the Church’s blessing when colonialists claimed the lands of indigenous peoples as their own. The Episcopal Church has formally repudiated and renounced the Doctrine of Discovery, as have several other Christian groups. Like Pope Francis, we grieve the ‘grave sins’ and ‘crimes’ of colonialism that were ‘committed against the Native people of America in the name of God.’
He went on to say, “Today the members of NRCCC come to you in humility, wanting you to know that we see your steadfast courage and that we cherish your spiritual vision of an earth-centered, earth-honoring life. Yours is a vision that we want to lift up across this country and around the world. It is an honor to give you this award.”
Then Chief Looking Horse stepped to the stage and accepted on behalf of the Sioux Nation the 2017 Steward of God’s Creation Award, which reads: “Presented in acknowledgment of your inspired courage, leadership and non-violence in protecting God’s sacred land and water.”
Later that day, Christians had another opportunity to express our deep respect for indigenous peoples and our deep repentance for the ways that Christianity has been used to commit and condone genocide. Racism has been justly called “America’s original sin,” and it began with the decimation of our land’s Native peoples. As Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in Why We Can’t Wait (1963),
“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race… From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode.”
Well, today was the day we would permit ourselves “to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode,” an “episode” of racist domination that continues into the present, though more covertly.
After participating in a sacred water ceremony led by Beatrice Menase Kwe Jackson, the crowd gathered around the sacred fire and listened to a Mohawk explain the ceremony of the Great Tree of Peace. According to Iroquois tradition, the cycle of conflict between separate Nations was broken when a Peacemaker – whose actual name is sometimes considered too sacred to utter – persuaded the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas to unite as the Five Nations Confederacy. As a pledge of their intention to live in peace, the Nations buried their weapons under a tall pine tree.
We intended to carry out a similar ceremony of confession and reconciliation that very afternoon, this time between Christians and First Nation peoples. Facing the crowd, I stood on the edge of the small amphitheater, with six Christians of various denominations standing beside me. Behind us was a deep pit in the ground and a young white pine tree, its roots wrapped in burlap, which was ready to be planted.
Since there was no microphone, I called out loudly:
This small circle of Christians has gathered to pray for peace. We are painfully aware of the ways that Christianity has been used over the centuries as a weapon to justify violence against indigenous peoples and violence against Mother Earth.
We are here to express our remorse and regret for this painful history.
We are here to dedicate ourselves to a renewed quest for peace with Earth, peace with our neighbors, and peace above all with our First Nations brothers and sisters.
We are here to lay our weapons down.
Today we intend to burn the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery is a principle of law developed in the 15th and 16th centuries by Popes and European Kings, and eventually applied by our own Supreme Court. The doctrine held that Christian sovereigns and their representative explorers could take possession of lands that were held by non-Christians, and could do so with the full blessing and sanction of the Church. Much of the ongoing injustice and colonization suffered by Native Americans in this country over the past 500 years can be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery.
The time has come for all Christians and all people of faith and good will to renounce this doctrine and its violation of the inherent rights that individuals and peoples have received from God.
Today we will deliver a copy of the document to the sacred fire and place its ashes at the base of our peace tree as a symbol of our intention to lay our weapons down.
Before we do, I invite everyone here, especially those who are Christian, to take a few moments to examine our own hearts, for it is in our hearts that we carry the seeds of violence that lead to injustices like the Doctrine of Discovery. It is in our hearts that we also carry the seeds of peace. So let us look well to our hearts, and open them to the Holy Spirit who searches for truth deep within us.
I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer.
One by one, each Christian speaker offered a prayer, and the crowd responded by chanting, “Lord, hear our prayer.”
Gracious God, we have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness, pride, and hypocrisy. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We confess our self-indulgent appetites, our greed, the idol we make of our wealth, and our economic exploitation of other people. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We confess our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty, especially the oppression and genocide of Native peoples. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We confess our waste and pollution of your creation and our addiction to fossil fuel that disrupts our climate and threatens our very life on earth. We confess our lack of concern for those who come after us. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
Accept our repentance, Lord, and give us grace to amend our lives, that we may do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. In your mercy,
Lord, hear our prayer.
After praying Amen, I said, “Now with sacred fire we will burn the Doctrine of Discovery. As we watch and listen to the burning, we ask God to burn away everything in our hearts that is not love.”
The Rev. Nathan Beale unfurled and lifted up the Doctrine of Discovery, which was printed in Spanish on yellow parchment-like paper. Brayton Shanley, one of the founders of Agape, walked down the hill to the sacred fire, lit a torch, and walked back up. The three of us bent over the pit. A violin played. I watched as the fire bit into the paper, dissolving and destroying it before our eyes. It melted away into ash, and out of the corner of my eye I saw my fellow Episcopal priest, Nathan Beale, make the sign of the cross. I wished I’d thought to make that prayerful gesture, but it was too late: I’d already pumped my two fists in the air as a gesture of triumph: the sacred fire had consumed the Doctrine of Discovery.
I trust that both gestures are a faithful response whenever we lay our weapons down.
“Plant the tree!” Brayton cried, and at once several men set themselves to hoisting the pine tree and maneuvering its root ball into the pit. Down into the ground it went, to be fed from below by the ashes of a doctrine that was wielded as a weapon. May all our renounced and buried weapons turn into good compost, so that many trees of life can spring up and bear fruit!
After the peace tree was planted, hundreds of people streamed up the hill. One by one they knelt down to place a bit of sacred tobacco at the base of the tree, praying to release trauma and receive healing. Whatever race they belonged to, whatever language they spoke, whatever religion they held dear, I trusted that we shared a common intention: to become peacemakers and to head together toward healing and fullness of life.
VIDEOS of the day
Robert A. Jonas filmed the Christian ceremony of repenting the Doctrine of Discovery, setting it on fire, and burying its ashes under a pine tree. The 12-minute video is here.
David Legg created a photographic record of the day’s events, featuring flute music by his Native American friend, Standing Bear, and singing by Elisabeth von Trapp. The 11-minute video is here.
Stories like these pull us into prayer – grief for those who perished, anguish for those in harm’s way, gratitude for the people saving everyone they can, and a rising tide of anger and resolve: we will not stand idly by as people drown and are dislocated in extreme storms like these.
Part of a faithful response is concrete and immediate: if we live nearby and have a boat or clothes to spare, we can offer what we have. Wherever we live, if we have money to spare, we can donate to a disaster relief organization, including faith-rooted groups such as Episcopal Relief and Development and Church World Service.
Climate scientist Michael E. Mann of Pennsylvania State University likewise confirmed the connections between climate change and Harvey’s destructive power. In his article entitled, “It’s a fact: climate change made Hurricane Harvey more deadly,” Mann pointed out that, while climate change did not “cause” Harvey, “Harvey was almost certainly more intense than it would have been in the absence of human-caused warming, which means stronger winds, more wind damage and a larger storm surge.”
This week, author and social activist Naomi Klein also pointed out that Harvey “didn’t come out the blue”: it was just the kind of extreme weather event that climate scientists have long been predicting. Surely now is the time, she argues, to have a serious policy debate in this country about the host of questions that Harvey raises: What kind of energy should we rely on (a question, she points out, “with jarring implications for the dominant industry in the region being hit hardest: oil and gas”)? What kind of safety net do we need to provide for the poor, the ill, and the elderly, given their vulnerability in times of disaster and given the certainty that storms like Harvey are only a harbinger of the climate-related storms that lie ahead?
Journalist Wen Stephenson is also attuned to the links between climate change and social justice. In an article with the bold headline, “Houston’s Human Catastrophe Started Long Before the Storm,” he writes: “Our unfolding climate catastrophe… is rooted in social and economic inequalities that render most vulnerable the most marginalized and powerless… Decades of neglect, inequality, and disenfranchisement – to say nothing of heedless development and a lack of flood planning tantamount to criminal negligence – mean that Houstonians of all backgrounds, but especially the poorest and most vulnerable communities, primarily communities of color, have been left utterly undefended.”
Climate change has never been only about polar bears. Stabilizing the climate is about social, racial, and economic justice, too – about treating Earth and each other with reverence and respect. How many more floods need to drown or displace our citizens and destroy our homes before we wake up to the climate crisis and take urgent steps to keep fossil fuels in the ground? How many more vulnerable communities are we willing to sacrifice in order to keep dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and keep enriching fossil fuel industry billionaires?
Meanwhile, as Harvey brings devastation to our Gulf Coast, a record-breaking strong monsoon season in Southeast Asia has caused over 1200 deaths this summer. Thanks to Harvey, Americans are newly aware of the suffering caused by floods exacerbated by climate change. Perhaps now we can look with greater empathy at similar images coming from India, Nepal, and Bangladesh – images of other mothers wading through flooded areas, carrying their children in their arms; images of other homes destroyed and other communities cut off, with no food and clean water for days.
Perhaps now, after seeing what Harvey is doing to Houston, we can look ahead and grasp more clearly – more viscerally – what it means when scientists predict that sea level rise will flood hundreds of American cities in the near future. A new report published by The Union of Concerned Scientists shows that by the end of the century, chronic flooding – defined as flooding so unmanageable that it drives people to move away – “will be occurring from Maine to Texas and along parts of the West Coast. It will affect as many as 670 coastal communities, including Cambridge, Massachusetts; Oakland, California; Miami and St. Petersburg, Florida; and four of the five boroughs of New York City.”
Cambridge, Massachusetts? I was born and grew up there. By the end of the century? I do the arithmetic, figuring the ages of my children and grandchildren. I imagine the social chaos, the streams of refugees, the abandoned buildings.
Will we look back on Harvey (and Katrina and Sandy) as the first in a relentless wave of storms that eventually brought down many of America’s great cities? Or will we look back on Harvey as the storm that finally got the attention of the American public and showed us the urgent need to take action on climate?
Climate change is neither distant nor abstract. It is real, present, and personal. Our country’s President denies the existence and human causes of climate change, and his environmental policies surely make matters worse, but people of faith, and people of good will, refuse to abandon the Earth entrusted to our care.
Tomorrow, on September 1, Christians will mark a World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. Whatever your faith tradition, I invite you to join in this planet-wide pause to hold our troubled world in our hearts. I invite you to go outside and appreciate the living world around you – the trees, soil, water, birds, and clouds. I invite you to acknowledge your own grief, anger, and fear about the Earth’s unraveling web of life, and I invite you to seek the guidance, resolve, and courage that come from listening to our deepest inner wisdom, the place where Love dwells.
For millions of Christians worldwide, September 1 marks the first day of the Season of Creation, a season dedicated to lifting up the sacredness of the natural world. Creation Season generally ends on October 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the man often called the patron saint of ecology. (For resources to mark this day of prayer and the whole Creation Season, visit Creation Justice Ministries.)
Here in Massachusetts, Episcopal congregations will mark their own Season of Creation, from October 4 through the end of November. In the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, we have assembled a mass of resources to help individuals and communities of faith to mark Creation Season. I hope that you will take a look, and decide how you and your community of faith will act, advocate, learn, and pray on behalf of God’s good Earth. How will you celebrate Creation Season this year? Will you design an outdoor worship service at a place of environmental degradation? Offer prayers to bless solar panels? Preach about the climate crisis? Carry out non-violent civil disobedience to protest a new gas pipeline? Organize a study group?
How will the extraordinary suffering and tragedy of Harvey – much of it endured beyond the reach of TV cameras and crew – strengthen your intention to become an agent of healing and hope?