July 2, 2020
This is the fifth in a series of six sermons on the theme “Faith for the Earth,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as chaplain for the first week of the inaugural session of CHQ Assembly, the new online summer program of Chautauqua Institution in NY.John 1:35-39a
Faith for the Earth: What are we longing for?
What do you long for most?
What is most precious to you? What do you want more than anything else?
To some Christians these may be surprising questions, since many of us associate our faith with self-denial rather than desire. But when two disciples of John the Baptist are curious about Jesus and start to follow him, Jesus doesn’t turn around and deliver a lecture or a teaching; he doesn’t give advice or moral counsel. Instead, he asks a question – an essential and revealing question: What are you looking for? What do you seek? What do you really want?
This is a piercing question, especially for all of us who live in an addictive society that is quick to tell us what we want. You’ve probably noticed that if we don’t know what we truly want, our desires are likely to get hijacked by what the culture around us tells us to want. I remember driving one day and seeing an advertisement on the back of a truck up ahead. I could just make out the headline, which declared in big letters, “What you are looking for.” I took the bait. I said to myself: Alright, what do you think I’m looking for? I drove a little faster and pulled up behind the truck, and there it was: a picture of a woman lounging comfortably with a cigarette between her lips. A cigarette was what I must be looking for. And, if not a cigarette, how about a car or the latest gadget or the newest fashion or the up-to-the-minute app? Whatever you’re looking for, we’ve got it. We’ll sell it to you.
The purpose of advertising is not just to sell a particular product but to create a climate of craving, so that we devote our best energies to buying and selling, to the endless process of acquiring, discarding, updating, and accumulating. Of course, there are material things that we need to survive and thrive, but we live in a throwaway culture that is based on the perpetual expansion of markets, the boundless consumption of resources, and the relentless burning of fossil fuels. No wonder Earth is groaning beneath the burden of human wants – while human need grows exponentially.
What are we longing for? What do we seek? What do we really want? These questions require honest self-examination. You could say that they come with a shovel, because when we’re fired up by questions like these, we carry out an archaeology of our motives and desires and dig down deep to discover the bedrock of what we truly want. What truly will make us happy? What truly will fulfill our restless cravings and set our hearts at rest? After we have sorted through our lesser wants, what we may discover is that deep down what we want is to be fully alive. Deep down we want to love and to be loved, to know and to be known, and to draw close to the holy Source of love. Deep down we want our lives to be about something much larger than ourselves and our endless, insatiable striving and self-promotion. We want our lives to have a creative purpose and meaning, and we want to be a blessing to other people.
Knowing and claiming our heart’s desire is like having a compass in our pocket. It is like having the North Star overhead, to guide our way. When we know our heart’s desire, in every moment we have a dependable indicator that helps point the way to wise action and loving speech. Moment to moment, in everything we do, in every situation we encounter, we can ask ourselves: How do I meet this situation in a way that taps my creativity and resonates with my deepest desire and highest purpose? What can I say in this moment, what can I do in this moment that will let that deep intention be more fully expressed? The more completely our lives align with what we value most, the more inner peace and stability we will feel, no matter what our outer circumstances may be. I assure you, when you are lit with creativity, curiosity, compassion and love, you will light up other people’s lives!
As I speak these words, we are hurtling toward a future in which all of us will live on a harsher, hotter, and more turbulent planet than the one into which we were born. As Bill McKibben succinctly puts it, “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen… We’ve undermined the basic physical stability of this planet.”1 Already we are experiencing massive droughts and floods, extreme storms and wildfires, and millions of people are already on the move, looking for a safer place to raise their families. A warming climate is the perfect breeding ground for the spread of tropical diseases and pandemics. And because climate change is a so-called “threat multiplier,” we can expect an increasing push toward conflict and war as regions and nations struggle over scarce resources.
How do we prepare for adversity? Here’s one answer: We find out what we really value, what we really long for, and what kind of world we want to create. We find our moral compass, our own North Star, and we set our course accordingly. We join hands with other people who want to cast their lot with love and justice and compassion.
One of the people we interviewed for our book, Rooted and Rising, was Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr. He’s the President and CEO of Hip Hop Caucus, which is a national, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that engages young people and communities of color in the political process and that has registered tens of thousands of young voters to the polls. Rev Yearwood is giving his life to the struggle for racial, economic, and environmental justice. Like so many other people, he is dedicated to a possibility that can seem impossibly out of reach.
I asked him where he turns for strength when he feels discouraged or overwhelmed, and here is part of his reply. He said: “You have to believe in something outside yourself. You have to find your anchor. For me, it’s God and Christianity, but you’ve got to find your own anchor. If you don’t, you will be blown away. You can’t do activism without an anchor. You can’t do activism without faith or some form of belief – maybe a belief in the future, or in children. It’s great if you have a faith tradition, because there are pieces there that you can hold on to, such as a sacred text, poetry, music – all kinds of things that can inspire you. But you need to have something.”2
He went on to say, “I’m anchored. I’m anchored in my tradition as a person of color, knowing that the people before me had to fight so hard to overcome slavery, to overcome the injustice of Jim Crow, to overcome acts of voter suppression. I’m in a tradition of waking up with those who have already fought. And then, as a person of faith and a minister, I link to this tradition of faith so that whatever I do, my steps are ordered. I know that God is leading me on the right path of fighting for other people, not just for myself. I’m fighting for God’s children and for God’s planet. That allows me to continue and sometimes to do remarkable things with other people….”3
Those are the words of someone who has found his heart’s desire – someone who knows that in this time of multiple emergencies, we need healers and justice-seekers, people who will stand up and cast their lot with life and do justly, now. And love mercy, now. And walk humbly, now.
If God were to whisper in your ear, “This is why I sent you here. This is what I sent you to do,” what would God say next? Find out.
1. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010), xiii and book jacket.
2. Lennox Yearwood, Jr., “Interview,” by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Lanham. MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), 99.
Happy are the people whose strength is in you! whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way. – Psalm 84:4
When I think of the three kings, what leaps first to mind are the crèches I unpack every year a couple of weeks before Christmas. On the piano in the living room I put the tall, earthenware figures of Mary, Joseph, and the baby, of the shepherds and sheep, and — yes — of the three kings and their camels. On the mantelpiece goes a miniature nativity set in which each teeny-tiny figure is made of clay, delicately painted, and no more than one inch high. On the coffee table I put the plastic figures and the cheap wooden stable that children can play with to their heart’s content without making their grandmother worry that something will break. No crèche is complete without its three kings, and when the Twelve Days of Christmas are over, back go the kings and camels into their boxes, where they spend the rest of the year stored in the basement.
Reflecting on today’s Gospel, I got to thinking: what would happen if the wise men walked out of those crèches and into our lives? What would happen if these figures — so easy to trivialize as nothing more than decorative props for a mid-winter festival that we pack away when the festival is done — what if the wise men actually came to life for us? What if their journey informed and deepened our own spiritual search, and propelled it forward? So I began to read the story for its spiritual significance, wondering if it might be read as a sacred, archetypal story about how we grow in intimacy with God.
Four parts of the story stand out to me.
First, of course, is the star, that
mysterious, shining presence that startles the wise men and launches their
search. Ancient tradition held that an unusual star could appear in the skies
to mark the birth of someone special, such as a king. That is how the wise men
interpret what they see: something out of the ordinary is taking place,
something truly significant is afoot, and out the door they go, leaving their
ordinary lives behind as they follow the light wherever it leads.
Let’s pause to note that even though every
painting, movie, and Christmas card that depicts the journey of the wise men
shows a dazzling star above their heads, we don’t actually know from the
biblical story whether anyone but the wise men can see that star. King Herod,
the chief priests and scribes don’t seem to know anything about the star until
the wise men arrive in Jerusalem and tell them about its rising. So the star
may be visible to the eye or it may be perceptible only to one’s inward sight;
it may be seen or it may be unseen. Either way, it signals the birth of
something new in the world. It heralds a presence and power just now being
born. The wise men are wise because they spot the star and set everything aside
to follow where it leads.
Maybe every spiritual journey begins with a star. At some point we get a sense — perhaps a very vague one — that there is something more to life than the ordinary round of tasks and responsibilities, something above, beyond, or maybe within material reality that can give a larger meaning and purpose to our days, something that is beautiful and shining and that lights up the world. So we set out on a quest to follow that star and to see where it leads. We may name the quest in different ways — maybe we call it a search for meaning or wholeness, a search for happiness or peace. Maybe we seek to know that we are loved, or to draw closer to the divine Source of love. Maybe, as some Greeks say to Philip in the Gospel of John, we express our desire in a simple, straightforward way: “We wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21). However we name that desire, deep down we want to know God. And so, like the wise men, we set out, and what beckons us forward is a star, a subtle, shining presence that keeps company with us, and that we follow as best we can.
For most of us, most of the time,
following the leadings of God is not like having a GPS in the car, delivering
clear-cut instructions: “Turn left in .2 miles; take the freeway; turn right in
4.3 miles.” Like it or not, the star of Bethlehem is more elusive than that, so
we have to develop a stance of careful listening and open inquiry, and a
practice of prayer that makes us more sensitive to the glimmers of the holy. It
takes practice to stay attentive to the star, for, as Boris Pasternak once
wrote, “When a great moment knocks on the door of your life, it is often no
louder than the beating of your heart, and it is very easy to miss it.”
The star is the first thing that catches
my attention in this story. The second
is Jerusalem. Where does the star lead the wise men? Straight to Jerusalem,
straight into the center of political and economic power, where King Herod the
Great, a client king appointed by Rome, rules with the same ferocity that
Stalin wielded over his own country in the 1930’s. We might wish that following
a spiritual path were only an individual and interior enterprise — that following
the star meant nothing more than developing a personal practice of prayer or
going away on periodic retreats. There are plenty of contemporary books and
speakers out there that define spirituality in a very individualistic way as
being mindful of your own mind and cultivating your own soul — and of course
that is definitely part of the journey. But right from the beginning, from the
very moment that Christ is born, it’s clear that following his star also means
coming to grips with the social and political realities of one’s time. Being
“spiritual,” for Christians, is not just an interior, individual project of
“saving your soul” — it also has a civic dimension, a political dimension, and
as the wise men faithfully follow the star, they are drawn straight into the
darkness and turmoil of the world, where systemic power can be used to dominate
and terrify. Without intending it or knowing it, the wise men even contribute
to Herod’s program of terror, for Herod takes the information that they give
him and uses it to order the slaughter of all the children under the age of two
who live in Bethlehem.
Following the star evidently means being
willing to become conscious of the darkness of the world, and even to perceive
how we ourselves are implicated in that darkness. The taxes I pay help
subsidize fossil fuels; the clothes I wear and the electronic devices I use may
have a vast but hidden social and environmental cost. If I drive a gas-powered car, with every turn
of the ignition key, I add to global warming. Until I recognize how I am caught
up in and contribute to the contradictions and injustices of our political and
economic system, I am not following the star and accompanying the wise men into
And let’s notice, too, that King Herod
trembles at news of the star — in fact, its rising frightens him. The powers
that be are terrified when God in Christ draws near, for God’s love is always a
threat to those powers; it opposes everything in us and around us that is
selfish, greedy, and motivated by the wish to dominate, control, and possess.
As I read it, the wise men needed to get to know those powers, both within
themselves and in the world around them, if they were going to find and follow
So they entered Jerusalem and faced the darkness. Then, keeping their eyes on the star, they kept going, “until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:9b-10).
This is the third part of the story: the
encounter with Christ. What a beautiful line that is — “when they saw that the
star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” The long, long journey with
all its uncertainties and privations, its cold nights and its restless, ardent
searching, has reached its fulfillment. The star has stopped, and the wise men
can be at peace at last, they have arrived at last, they have found what they
were looking for, at last! They enter the house, they see Mary and the child,
and they fall to their knees in a gesture of deep reverence and humility.
Do we know what that’s like? Of course we
do. We glimpse such moments whenever time seems to stop, when, for instance,
our minds grow very quiet in prayer, we surrender our thoughts, and we seem to
be filling with light. Or maybe it happens when we gaze at something that
captures our complete attention — maybe a stretch of mountains or the sea, or
when we take a long, loving look into a child’s sleeping face, or when we are
completely absorbed in a piece of music. In moments like these, it can feel as
if we are gazing through the object on which we gaze, and seeing into the heart
of life itself. Love is pouring through us and into us, and all we can do is
throw up our hands, fall inwardly to our knees, and offer as a gift everything
that is in us, just as the wise men open their treasure chests and offer
everything that is in them. Worship is what happens when we come into the
presence of what is really real. When we come to the altar rail at the
Eucharist, whether we choose to stand or whether we kneel as the wise men did,
like them we stretch out our hands to offer everything that is in us, and like
them we receive — we take in — the living presence of Christ.
Finally, the fourth part of the story is its closing line: “… having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road” (Matthew 2:12). In other words, the wise men refused to cooperate with Herod. They deceived him. They resisted him. The wise men have been called the first conscientious objectors in the name of Christ. They are the first in a long line of witnesses to Christ who from generation to generation have carried out acts of non-violent civil disobedience in Jesus’ name. The journey of the wise men is our journey, too, for, as Gregory the Great reportedly remarked in a homily back in the 7th century: “Having come to know Jesus, we are forbidden to return by the way we came.”
So, as we set out together into a new
year, I hope that you will join me in keeping the wise men at our side, rather
than packing them away somewhere in a box.
Like them, we can attune ourselves to the
guiding of the star and renew our commitment to prayer and inward listening.
Like them, we can enter Jerusalem and all
the dark places of our world and soul, following where God leads, and trusting
that God’s light will shine in the darkness.
Like them, we can make our way to Christ,
and kneel in gratitude.
And like them, we, too, can rise to our feet with a new-fired passion to be agents of justice and healing, and a renewed desire to give ourselves to God, for “happy are the people whose strength is in [God, and] whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.”
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?
What a blessing it is to be here this morning and to join your Lenten exploration of “Fierce Love”! Thank you, Rob (Rev. Robert J. Mark), for inviting me to preach, and thank you for your steadfast witness to God’s love for the Earth and for all its communities, human and other-than-human. I was arrested with you last spring at an interfaith protest of the West Roxbury fracked gas pipeline, and just a few months ago, each of us felt called to make a trip to Standing Rock to stand with the Water Protectors. We are allies in the struggle for life, and it is good to worship with you and your congregation this morning.
I have the longest job title in the world. I serve in both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC as Missioner for Creation Care. This unusual joint position is a marker of good things ahead, for Christians of every denomination, and people of every faith tradition, are drawing together to proclaim with one voice that the Earth is sacred and that we intend to work together – boldly, lovingly, without swerving, without delay – to renew its health and to protect it from further harm.
Today’s Gospel reading brings us to the turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Raising Lazarus is the crowning miracle or sign that reveals Jesus as the giver of life, and that also precipitates his death. The raising of Lazarus provokes a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish court, which reaches the decision that Jesus is dangerous and must be killed. And so next week we come to Palm Sunday and begin the anguish and ultimately the joy of Holy Week.
Today’s story begins in a place of desolation, loss, and despair. Lazarus has died; he has been dead for four days; and his sisters Mary and Martha are in distress, grieving with family and friends. The story begins right where we are: in a world that is full of death, full of grieving, full of loss. Mary and Martha taste the same bitterness that we taste when a loved one dies. They know, as we do, the pang of sorrow that can seize us in the middle of the night. They know the anguish that can empty life of zest or meaning.
This morning you and I may be in the very same place in which Mary and Martha begin this story, for there is plenty of death in the air these days. My particular concern is the climate crisis, and right now, even as I speak, burning fossil fuels is pumping carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere and further disrupting the delicate balance of the world’s climate. In just 200 years – a blink in geologic time – human beings have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher than our species has ever experienced before. Last year was the hottest year on record, which crushed the record set the year before, which crushed the record set the year before that. As global temperatures rise, every living system of the world is affected and in decline. Sea ice is melting rapidly at both poles. Land ice is melting and sliding into the sea. Tundra is thawing. Storms are becoming more intense. Droughts are spreading in some areas, extensive floods in others. The ocean is absorbing heat and excess carbon dioxide, and in just decades has become 30% more acidic. Last month scientists reported that large sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died.
The climate emergency is not just a quote-unquote “environmental” problem. It’s not just about polar bears and coral. It’s about people in Southern Africa, where rains have failed, crops are withering, and starving families are “reduced to eating cactus and even rocks or ashes.” It’s about Pacific islanders whose homelands are already flooding. It’s about impoverished people here and abroad who are hit first and hardest by a changing climate, who have the fewest resources to adapt to it, and who are the least responsible for causing it. It’s about coastal communities and great cities the world over, including Boston, which face rapidly rising seas.
So that’s where we find ourselves: on a beautiful, precious, but ailing planet, with the web of life unraveling before our eyes. When we hear bad news like this, it can be easy to shut down. It is difficult to face the grief, helplessness, and fear that our situation evokes. Most of us aren’t climate skeptics; most of us don’t deny outright the conclusions of science – but most of us do engage in a kind of everyday denial: we try to avoid the anxiety of thinking about climate change, so we change the subject and focus on more manageable things. When we feel helpless to imagine, much to less create, a better future, we just carry on with business as usual. It’s as if we fall under a spell and make what former U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon calls a “global suicide pact.”
That’s where our gospel passage begins: in darkness, in the pit, in the valley of the shadow of death. Martha and Mary are bereft. And then – something changes. Jesus arrives. When he sees Mary weeping, and the crowds around her weeping, Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33). As if the gospel writer wants to make the meaning perfectly clear, a few verses later we come to the shortest verse in all of Scripture, a verse that is often translated by just two words: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). He wept. Here is no distant God, no far-off deity untouched by grief, but a God who comes as one of us, a God who meets us in our suffering, a God who shares in our pain. When we feel anguish, it’s easy to look for someone to blame, to conclude that God isn’t real, that God is punishing us, or that God has abandoned us. But gazing at Jesus in this story reveals something different: when our hearts are breaking, God’s heart is breaking, too.
It is a heart-opening, mind-opening revelation to discover that when we weep for the Earth, when we feel outrage and protest, God is grieving with us and through us. God is bearing what we cannot bear alone. The fact that Jesus wept suggests that the first step in healing, the first step in birthing new life, comes when we step toward the pain, not away from it, and when we do so in the presence of God. The God who enters into our suffering knows that new life begins only when we are willing to feel pain. And when we grieve in God’s presence, we move out of numbness, out of inertia, out of the denial that pretends that everything is fine.
So, as the wise Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy puts it, “Don’t ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a sign of your humanity and your maturity… We are capable of suffering with our world, and that is the true meaning of compassion. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings.”
I will ask you the same questions that I asked at yesterday’s retreat at Trinity Church on spiritual resilience and resistance: Where do you feel the pain of the earth and its creatures? Where do you hear the groaning of God’s creation?
And I will add this, too: the unjust powers of this world don’t want us to grieve or protest. They don’t want us to feel outrage and sorrow when we face the deathly patterns that are part of this society: the racism and militarism, the abuse of the helpless, the poisoning of air and water, the relentless assault on the web of life. The powers-that-be would much prefer that we stay numb – zombies who are too busy or bored or distracted, too defended to feel the pain that allows something new to be imagined, something new to be born. “Jesus wept,” and in that weeping begins the healing that leads to new life.
In the vulnerability of his open heart, Jesus opens to a power greater than himself. “Take away the stone,” he says to the astonished crowd. Can you imagine what the throng of people must be thinking just then? Probably something along the lines of, “Hey – is he nuts?” But reluctantly or eagerly, maybe shaking their heads in bemusement, maybe daring to hope against hope, some folks move forward. They lean their weight against the stone and push it away from the entrance of the tomb.
And then comes Jesus’ voice. In the midst of weeping, there comes a voice. “Lazarus,” he cries. “Come out.” It is a voice of power, a summons, a command, and it addresses us by name. You’ve heard that voice before, and I’ve heard it, too. Deep inside us is a presence, a voice, a Someone who calls us to quit hiding in a deathly place and to step out into fullness of life. We can go for a while, maybe quite a long while, not engaging with reality, not engaging with the climate crisis, and just laying low, hiding out, ducking from everything that seems too hard to face, too hard to bear. The powers-that-be want to keep it that way, and they murmur, “That’s OK. Get comfy in that little tomb. Make peace with it. Decorate it. Stay small.”
But then comes that insistent, disturbing voice, calling us by name. “Barbara,” it says. “Come out. Cindy, come out. Rob, come out. Margaret, come out.”
“I love you,” God says to us. “I want you to be fully alive, not just partially alive, not just going through the motions. I want you to grow up into your full stature in Christ. I loved you into being, I sent you into the world to fall in love, and I call you now to serve love without holding back. So come out of your hiding place. Come out of your helplessness. Come out of your fearfulness, and join the struggle to save life on this sweet Earth. The resurrection life that I give you doesn’t start beyond the grave. It starts right now. I didn’t create you to live in a tomb.”
When I look around, I see a planet at risk of catapulting into runaway climate disruption. But also see person after person hearing – and answering – a deep call to step out and to engage in the struggle to protect life.
On a practical level, what can we do? As individuals, we can drive less, use public transportation, put on a sweater and turn down the heat, ignore the dryer and hang our laundry out to dry, eat less meat, eat local foods, recycle, and so on. You know the drill.
But the scope and pace of the climate crisis require change on a much broader scale. Thanks be to God, coalitions are building among people of faith who care about the Earth, about poverty and economic justice, about racial justice, about immigration and human rights – for all these issues intersect. Right here in Massachusetts, a new group, Mass. Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action (or MAICCA, for short) is organizing very diverse communities of faith to work together on climate. I’ve put a MAICCA sign-up sheet in back so that you can connect.
At the end of this month, on April 29, the 100th day of this country’s new Administration, thousands of people – including countless people of faith – will converge on Washington, D.C., for the People’s Climate Movement “March for Jobs, Justice, and Climate.” You can sign up for the march at PeoplesClimate.org, and I hope you will come. A sister march will be held here in Boston on the same day, and that’s a good choice, too, though it may be particularly effective to carry out our witness in our nation’s capital.
The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God is calling us out of the tomb of inertia and despair and into the wholehearted, focused, joyful, justice-seeking, Spirit-led, unstoppable movement to protect the world that God entrusted to our care.
“Lazarus, come out!”
Faith and fear duke it out
I am not a brave person. In fact, I am quite familiar with anxiety. I know what it’s like to wake up wide-eyed in the middle of the night, imagining the future with dread. Deciding to go to Standing Rock was not easy.
I heard in late November that Chief Arvol Looking Horse was urging people of faith to travel to Oceti Sakowin Camp for a day of prayer on Sunday, December 4, 2016. I considered this a holy invitation. It spoke to my conviction that the Earth is sacred. It spoke to my desire that we learn to live in peace with each other and with the Earth on which all life depends. It spoke to my longing to bear witness to our God-given hope that life and not death will have the last word.
I knew that the protest against the Dakota Access pipeline was historic. An extraordinary wave of solidarity was sweeping the world, as hundreds of once-estranged tribal nations and jurisdictions stood with the Standing Rock Sioux and proclaimed with one voice that water is sacred; water is life. Thousands of Native and non-Native people had already come to the camps near the Missouri River to resist construction of a pipeline that would endanger the river, Native lands, and the whole of Mother Earth.
What’s more, a showdown was now at hand. Energy companies had invested billions of dollars in the project; only one mile of pipeline remained to be built; the year-end deadline for completing the pipeline was just weeks away; and – though the announcement was amended almost as soon as it was issued – December 5 could be the day when the camp would be forcibly evacuated.
Strong emotions and commitments pulled me toward Standing Rock for the Interfaith Day of Prayer on December 4, but anxiety nudged me to say No. I talked it over with a friend – a religious leader and climate activist who had been arrested with me last May in a pipeline protest here in Massachusetts. We agreed that making a trip to Standing Rock was too risky. The brutal North Dakota winter was too cold. The night was too dark. The militarized police were too violent, armed with rubber bullets, guard dogs, pepper spray, and water hoses that the police willingly sprayed in frigid temperatures. Hundreds of unarmed “water protectors” had already been injured,
including one young woman so severely hurt that her arm might need to be amputated. In addition, thousands of veterans from across the country were also invited to show up that weekend. Although they pledged to carry no weapons and to serve as “human shields,” they were asked to bring body armor and gas masks. Military chaplains were likewise about to converge at Standing Rock to minister to the veterans. Everything was in place for the conflict to escalate. Would we be walking straight into a massacre? After talking with my friend on Sunday night, I hung up the phone, relieved that I was staying home.
The next morning I got a phone call from another friend, Unitarian Universalist minister and climate activist, Rev. Fred Small. He was going to Standing Rock that weekend. Would I join him?
I didn’t know whether to laugh or groan. Not you again, Fred. Fred is my burning bush. Like the burning bush that stopped Moses in his tracks, Fred has interrupted me several times over the years to invite me to do something righteous but scary. Oh no, not again. I told him I would pray about it.
But I was too anxious to pray. I asked my beloved husband if he would listen to me talk through the pro’s and con’s. In his attentive presence I enumerated the reasons to go, including my desire to bear witness to the sacredness of God’s creation and my desire to stand with non-violent, unarmed people at the place where the struggles for indigenous rights, human rights, economic justice, climate justice and care for the Earth intersect.
In the end, the allure was simple: I wanted to pray. I wanted to pray with Chief Looking Horse and the other Native elders. The call to pray was in my belly, like a fire.
“OK,” my husband said. “The pro’s are clear. How about the con’s?”
To my surprise, a long silence followed. I had nothing to say. The reasons not to go to Standing Rock boiled down to a single one: Fear. I looked Fear over, top to bottom. I was not impressed. Fear did not seem a reliable foundation upon which to base a decision. Besides, compared to the strong, embodied pull to go, the fear that begged me to stay was as flimsy as mist: I could blow it away with one Spirit-filled breath.
I arranged a plane reservation for Bismarck, joined a conference call (hosted by Unitarian Universalist ministers) for clergy going to Standing Rock, and assembled winter gear. I hoped to meet Fred Small on Sunday for the Interfaith Day of Prayer, but the rest of the trip I would make on my own, since my husband did not feel called to come.
I refused to let fear stop me, but fear was still prowling about. I couldn’t chase it away, so I decided to accept it. “Be not afraid” may be one of the great messages in the Bible, but a worried person who is trying to do something difficult may not find these words especially comforting. Fear can’t always be so quickly dismissed. I took greater solace in remembering that Jesus himself felt anguish before his crucifixion (Luke 22:44), yet did not flee. He managed to pray through the fear and to keep his heart steadfastly fixed on what he felt led to do. Audre Lorde got it right: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
At night I slept as best I could, in fits and starts. A few days before the trip, a man I did not know sent me an email: he’d been on the conference call and knew that I was going to Standing Rock; could we connect on the ground in North Dakota? Sure, I impulsively replied – let’s share the rental car and travel together.
That night I tossed and turned and finally sat bolt upright at 3 a.m. Have you lost your mind? You know nothing about this guy. For all you know, he’s a serial rapist or an ax murderer. I leaped out of bed, turned on the computer, and launched a Google search. Michael Arase-Barham turned out to be an Episcopal priest from California who had received a Doctorate of Ministry in the spirituality of pilgrimage. That seemed a good sign. Plus he had the friendly, bearded face of a Friar Tuck. OK, I would risk it. Jesus sent out his disciples two by two, and I needed an ally along the way.
I packed my bags. I flew to Bismarck.
Faith and doubt duke it out
Michael turned out to be a stellar fellow pilgrim. In the course of the journey, we exchanged supplies: he gave me toothpaste; I gave him hand warmers. He peered into his cellphone and did the navigating; I peered into the darkness and did the driving. At one point, when the car got stuck in snow on the side of the road, he got out and pushed us to safety. And he loved to pray. I have never met a person more devoted to the daily round of services provided by our Book of Common Prayer. As we drove from Bismarck to Fort Yates (population: 195), he led us in Evening Prayer and Compline. That night, along with other pilgrims from far-away places, we slept on the floor of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Early the next morning, on Sunday, December 4, we made our pre-dawn drive to the camp. Michael led us in Morning Prayer.
On the way, I asked him to read the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). When a great battle lies ahead or is already underway, nothing is more beautiful to pray than Mary’s song of praise to the God of justice and mercy who scatters the proud in their conceit, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty. Mary bursts into song because she is bearing the Christ-child, the one whose long-ago birth we celebrate at Christmas and who is born among us every time we allow divine love to fill us, guide us, and act through us, making all things new.
Michael and I drove toward Oceti Sakowin Camp in the company of a long stream of cars. Rounding a turn, we caught sight of the camp, up ahead: hundreds of tents, tepees, and yurts sprawled across a field of snow, with tall rows of flags lining the dirt road that cuts through the center of the campground. We found a place to park inside the camp, and headed toward the sacred fire.
I soon learned that nearly everything of importance at the camp takes place around the fire, which never goes out: storytelling, singing, dancing, drumming and praying. Daily activities are steeped in prayer, rooted in appeals to the Creator and to Mother Earth, the grandmother of everything. As we arrived, Native people were taking turns at the microphone near the fire, welcoming newcomers, offering coffee, and reviewing the painful history of indigenous peoples in this country: devastating wars, land grabs, broken treaties, shattered cultures, murders, betrayals. For these Native people, the weight of the past is palpable, sorrowful, dark, heavy, and immediate. Their current fight to protect sacred lands and water (“blue gold”) and to stop the pipeline (the dangerous “black snake” that legend foretold) is an extension of their long struggle against genocide.
On that Sunday morning the interfaith prayer service began at 10 a.m., attended by a large crowd that included clergy from more than thirty religious traditions. Speaker after speaker came forward to speak or sing or pray. Rev. Karen Van Fossan, a UUA minister in Bismarck, led us in singing a rousing version of “As I went down to the river to pray,” concluding with a prayer to “Give us the courage we need, and the hope that comes from courage, and the courage that comes from hope.”
Rev. Victor Kazanjian, Executive Director of United Religions Initiative, came “in a spirit of sorrow,” acknowledging religion’s “atrocities” to the Native peoples, seeking forgiveness, and bringing with him thousands of prayers for the Standing Rock Sioux from 56 countries around the world. He also brought water collected from 167 sacred water sources. He noted that these waters mingled together without separating into ‘higher’ and ‘lower’; in this, he said, they expressed “the beauty of all humanity.” Water is essential to life and to the human body. “The struggle for water,” he said, “is the struggle for the essence of our being.”
Dr. Cornel West spoke with passion about prayer as a form of reverence and a form of resistance. “I call it revolutionary love,” he proclaimed, adding: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” He pointed out that this was an historic moment. The Dakota Access pipeline is a continuation of the war against our indigenous Native brothers and sisters that began more than 520 years ago and that is still underway. He argued that we should never say that the harsh treatment of Black people was America’s Original Sin. “The enslavement of Black people was the second Original Sin.”
Muslims, rabbis, Buddhist and Hindu leaders spoke, as did Methodists, Roman Catholics, members of the Society of Friends, local Native leaders, and Native leaders from distant countries. Lewis Cardinal, Chair of the Indigenous People’s Task Force of the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, spoke for us all when he said, “We stand here together on this day, at this time, brothers and sisters all, and with our Mother.”
The service went on for hours – urgent and prayerful, scented with wood smoke and sage – yet we could never forget that we were standing in something like a war zone. A helicopter and a small plane kept buzzing noisily overhead, a constant harassment. For now, we ignored these reminders of the police, the corporate powers, and the politicians bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry: we had our own healing work to do with each other. As one Native speaker put it, the Church had told his people that they were devil worshipers and that they would go to Hell. For now it was enough to absorb the miracle that people of every faith, including members and leaders of many Christian churches, were today standing as one with Native peoples, praying as one, cherishing the Earth as one, greeting each other as equals, as kin, and joining the shared struggle to protect our common home.
Another level of healing was going on, too: Native speakers were welcoming and thanking the thousands of U.S. veterans who had traveled to Standing Rock to stand with the Sioux. It astonished me to imagine the reconciliation of Native peoples with members of the U.S. military. I gasped when I heard a bugle play Reveille and other military calls, the sounds that had once preceded or accompanied attacks on Native communities. The former enemies of Native peoples were now inside the camp, seeking forgiveness, offering support, and no longer intending harm.
Near the end of the service, a Native speaker told the crowd that his grandfather had died in 1890 at Wounded Knee, the brutal massacre of Sioux warriors, women, and children by American soldiers on the Plains of South Dakota. The speaker added: “Crazy Horse said that the Sacred Hoop was broken at Wounded Knee.”
Then Chief Looking Horse stepped forward. It was time, he said, to mend the Sacred Hoop. The original plan for the afternoon had been for clergy to walk up to the police barricade, but now, he said, the plan had changed. Instead, everyone at the camp was going to move clockwise, on foot and on horseback, out to the far edges of the camp. There we would form a great circle, hold hands, and pray. People all over the world would be praying with us.
He pulled out an eagle bone whistle. “I will call the eagle to come.”
He blew the whistle. “We are one heart,” he said. “We are one mind. One prayer. One spirit.”
Half expecting an eagle to appear, I looked up. I wanted an eagle to come upon us like a vision, like a sign, but nothing happened. The sky was empty of life. Instead of hearing the whoosh of wings overhead, or the cry of a bird of prey, all I could hear was the chop of helicopter blades.
The crowd began to disband. Dispirited, I began walking with Michael toward what I took to be the nearest edge of the camp. I had no clear idea where we were going or what we would do when we got there. Why had the chief entrusted the crowd with this ceremony? And what sort of ceremony could it be? As an Episcopal priest, I was used to leading orderly services carried out indoors with clear lines of authority, assigned seating, and probably a service leaflet. Sounding more disgruntled than I intended, I only half-jokingly muttered to Michael that if this were an Episcopal liturgy, we would hold a rehearsal and figure out in advance where to stand, where to sit, and what to do. By contrast, this thing was completely chaotic. We ran into stragglers who hadn’t heard about the prayer circle. Would they join us? We saw people pausing to stand in line for the Port-a-Potty or to grab a bite to eat. Would they get distracted, forget about the ceremony, and move on to something else? Would enough people stay faithful to our prayerful task or would people simply drift away and let the effort peter out?
I confess it: my doubt sprang not only from discomfort with a spontaneous, disorderly ceremony that involved hundreds of people. It also sprang from not wanting to depend on other people to get the job done. I didn’t want to depend on their goodwill, their capacity to pay attention, or their ability to follow directions. I didn’t think we could complete the ritual. I didn’t think we could pull it off. I had no faith in my fellows. I was filled with doubt.
Doubt is a terrible thing. It undermines hope and resolve. But the only way to get mighty things done is to do them together, learning to trust each other and to suspend our doubts. Fortunately I was as stubborn as I was doubtful. If I didn’t carry out my own part of the mission, why should other people carry out theirs? And if we didn’t finish this task together and today, would it ever be accomplished? Despite my doubts I stubbornly kept on walking, kept on heading to the edge of camp, kept on reaching out for hands to clasp. I wanted this prayer-circle thing to work.
So, it turned out, did everybody else.
It took a number of adjustments. Should we stand close to the Cannonball River or should we stand further away? Were we the only string of people holding hands in this corner of the camp? If so, should we stand still and wait for other people to find us, or should we search for another string of people to meet up with and join?
Young Native Americans trotted by on foot, offering words of encouragement, as good at their job as any Verger in an Episcopal cathedral. Don’t let go! We’re almost there! Step this way! No, not that way – this way! To your left! To your left! Don’t let go your hands! We’ve almost got it!
Our line of people stumbled sideways, laughing. We took careful steps backward until our arms were fully outstretched and our hands firmly clasped. Excitement rose. As we waited for other parts of the circle to form, strangers introduced themselves to each other. Here on my right was Michael, and then two Quaker women from upstate New York, both of them long-time activists; here on my left was Allison, a young Native American from Minnesota who was visiting the camp for the third time.
Person by person the circle was woven, until at last we could look out and see a distant line of people holding hands in what seemed like the far-off other side of the world.
We’d done it! The circle was complete! The Sacred Hoop was mended!
But, as if that weren’t marvel enough, it was just then that a young Native messenger came bounding past. “Denied! Denied!” he yelled. “The pipeline permit has been denied!” He was breathless with joy.
What? We fell into startled silence, looking at each other. Doubt arose. I murmured to Michael, “I need some kind of confirmation before I’m going to believe that.”
Someone else appeared and repeated the good news. Was it possible? What did it mean? Did we dare to trust what we were hearing? We released hands and headed back to the sacred fire, our jubilation growing as we drew closer and heard the drumming and singing that had already begun. The good news was true: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had denied the final permit that allowed the Dakota Access pipeline to go under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe.
This is what elation sounds like: drumming, chanting, singing. This is what elation looks like: a crowd of people swaying and dancing, with individuals – even strangers – looking into each others’ eyes, wiping away tears, and exchanging an embrace. I joined in the two-step dance around the sacred fire. We danced just as every soul dances when forgiveness, justice, and mercy extend in every direction. We danced because sight had been restored to the blind and captives had been set free. We danced because the mighty had been cast down from their thrones, the lowly had been lifted up, and strangers had become friends.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the LORD,” sings Mary in the Magnificat. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant…”
In between chants, drumming, and songs, Native speakers took turns at the microphone. Repeatedly they thanked the millions of people worldwide who had expressed support, the thousands who had visited the camps, the tens of thousands who had donated time and money to the struggle to stop the pipeline and protect the water.
Someone said, “Never before have we been at an intersection where everyone is here. It is a strange turn of history when the people taking care of us are the military of the U.S. government.”
Someone said, “We’ve come to this huge, giant ceremony being hosted by Mother Earth.”
Someone said, “I want to thank the person that loves spirituality. I want to thank the person that loves Mother Earth.”
Someone said, “We still have a lot of praying to do. We are not done yet. We are going to keep fighting. We will pray for the Governor” (and he named other individuals that want to build the pipeline). “They do not seek the Spirit in their hearts yet. We will pray for the ones who want to destroy.”
Someone said, “This is about more than a pipeline. This is the beginning of the world united.”
The celebration went on for hours. We knew that the battle was not over: the company behind the Dakota Access pipeline fully intends to complete the pipeline, and our President-elect seems hell-bent on extracting and burning every last ounce of fossil fuels. But for now it was enough – it was more than enough – to touch the deep truth that we belong to each other and to the Earth – to know in our bones that every person is sacred and every community is sacred, that the web of life is sacred, that the Earth is sacred.
It seems to me that we didn’t just mend the Sacred Hoop that day. We were becoming the Sacred Hoop that was no longer broken.
By the fire
On December 5, what I’d feared might happen – violence, forcible evacuation, even massacre – did not take place. Instead, a second ceremony of healing was carried out: the son of General Wesley Clark stood with the veterans and apologized for the centuries of genocide perpetrated by the U.S. military. Coming, he said, “as the conscience of a nation,” he knelt before Leonard Dog Crow, confessed the military’s sins, and asked for forgiveness. Forgiveness was granted. (A brief video is here.) In these dark times, when fear and doubt threaten to tear so many communities apart, a light shines out from acts of reconciliation like these!
Michael and I returned to the camp that morning. After agreeing to meet again at the sacred fire, we went our separate ways and explored on our own. I wanted first to go up high. Picking my way through patches of ice, I climbed the small hill overlooking the camp and gazed into the distance, looking out over the helter-skelter assortment of teepees and yurts, vehicles and flags. Here we all were – a diverse company drawn together by a fierce and spirited longing for justice and healing.
Carrying this image with me, I made my way downhill and walked back to the fire. Small logs were aflame in the shallow, circular pit. A few people were sitting on benches, talking quietly or sitting alone in silent prayer. Bundles of lavender were placed around the rim of the circle, and at the circle’s entrance were bowls of tobacco and juniper sprigs, along with a turtle shell, small skulls, feathers, and sage.
I don’t know the religious traditions of the Lakota Sioux. I was touched that an outsider like me was welcome to participate in their ceremonies. I knelt to take a pinch of tobacco, a bit of juniper. As I cradled these offerings in my palm, a prayer of gratitude gradually collected within me. When the time was ripe, I cast what I was holding into the flames. Then I sat for a while and watched the fire. Gazing down, I could almost see the fire extending deep into the Earth. I could almost see the fire reaching down like roots in every direction and catching up everything it touched. The longer I gazed, the more it seemed as if that strong and living fire could ground our every step on Earth, could be inhaled with every breath of air, and could bring warmth to every human heart.
On our way home
The first flakes of snow were falling. By early afternoon, when Michael and I began our trek back to Bismarck, a ferocious blizzard was beginning to roll in from the Arctic. Eventually the winds would gust up to 50 mph, wind chills would drop to nearly 20 below zero, and the camp would be buried in snowdrifts up to 7 feet deep. For now I simply kept a gentle, wary foot on the accelerator and squinted into the white landscape of driving snow, trying to locate the next piece of highway. When I heard the tires hit one of the rumble strips on either side of the road, I’d hazard a guess: should I make the correction by steering left or right?
“Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy,” I silently prayed, my fingers clutching the steering wheel. Which was worse – sliding into a ditch or into oncoming traffic? Sometimes it’s no small thing to keep to your chosen path.
Michael seemed unperturbed. “Shall I read Noon Day Prayer?” he asked, cheerfully, pulling out his prayer book.
“No, thanks,” I answered through clenched jaws. “You go ahead. I’ll just listen this time.”
Threading our way through love and fear, we prayed our way home.
Text of a keynote address for “An Interfaith Climate Justice Meeting” organized by Springfield Area Interfaith Climate Action Network (SAICAN), held at First Church of Christ, Longmeadow, MA, on October 30, 2016
Thank you for inviting me to speak. I am excited by what you’re up to as a coalition, and very interested to see what emerges from today’s meeting.
I have worked with some of you. Some of you I haven’t yet met. But I greet all of you as friends. I am an Episcopal priest and a long-time climate activist, and I now have the world’s longest job title. I work as “Missioner for Creation Care for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and for the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ.”
I am not a “missionary,” a term that can evoke imperialist, colonial-era associations of forcibly converting someone to a religion, but rather a “missioner”: someone who is sent out on a mission, serving a purpose greater than herself, out of the box, outside the boundaries of a building. And I’m a missioner for “Creation care,” a term, it turns out, that some people confuse with “creationism,” the belief that the universe originated from acts of God that are literally described in the Bible. Being a missioner for “Creation care” (not creationism) means that I’m trying to protect the beautiful world that God created. My Website is RevivingCreation.org, where you can find blog posts, sermons, articles, and more – including an article on how to start a green team, and an article on the roles that communities of faith can play in a time of climate crisis.
My job is like a swinging door: on the one hand, I preach, speak and lead retreats for people of faith, saying that we need to place the climate crisis at the center of our moral and spiritual concern and we need to take action. Then I turn, and I speak to activists who may have no particular faith tradition. I thank them for engaging in the struggle to protect the web of life, which is such urgent and difficult work. I tell them that the only way to keep going, without burning out or going off the rails, is to draw from inner resources of spiritual wisdom, from spiritual practices, and ideally from the support of a spiritual community.
Today the swinging door is an open door: people of faith and climate justice activists are here together in one place! How sweet it is! I hope we can break down (or at least soften) the false split of people into two camps: “spiritual” people (people who pray, meditate, and take time to contemplate beauty of the world; people who give thanks and who attend to their inner lives) and “active” people (people on the front lines who are serving, helping, organizing, advocating). I hope we can keep working to heal that false split, because right now we need people who can do both: people who can tap into their deep inner wisdom and who can also step out to take bold, creative action on behalf of life on this planet.
Christians often say that we need to be good “stewards” of the planet. That’s true. But sometimes the word “steward” can sound rather wimpy, as if it’s enough for us to recycle a can once in a while, or to turn off a light. I think we need a term that is more robust, more full of juice. Maybe we need to be “spiritual warriors” engaged in “sacred activism.”
More than ever we need wise people, bold people, dedicated people, because we’re in the midst of an emergency. The house is on fire. Through burning fossil fuels like coal, gas, and oil, in 200 years – just a blink in geologic time – we’ve pumped so much heat-trapping CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the air that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher than they’ve been for millions of years. In a TED talk a few years ago, climate scientist James Hanson explained that the added energy (or heat) that we’re pouring into the atmosphere is equivalent “to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day, 365 days per year. That’s how much extra energy Earth is gaining each day.” Not surprisingly, this is having a profound effect on planet. In his book Eaarth, Bill McKibben writes: “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.” Scientists tell us with increasing alarm that unless we change course fast, we’re on a fast track to catastrophic, runaway climate change that would render the world very difficult to inhabit, perhaps in the lifetime of our children.
I’ve been a climate activist for many years, but I have never felt the rising tide of commitment and momentum that I now feel. I’m deeply thankful for that, even as I am keenly aware that we have a long struggle ahead. Every religion has issued some kind of statement about the moral and spiritual urgency of addressing the climate crisis – here is just one collection, Faith-based Statements on Climate Change, collected by Citizens Climate Lobby volunteers.
Climate change is obviously a scientific issue, an economic issue, a political issue, but it is also a moral issue, a justice issue. 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. As we see in Flint, Michigan, and right here in Springfield, the front-line communities most affected by fossil fuel pollution are often low-income communities and communities of color. The poor are often the people least responsible for causing climate change, and the people least equipped to protect themselves from its effects. As the Pope’s encyclical makes crystal clear, healing the climate is closely connected with securing social justice, racial justice, environmental justice, and economic justice. We can see that very starkly in the struggle going on right now at Standing Rock in North Dakota, in the resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline. And climate change is about intergenerational justice, too, for right now we are stealing a habitable Earth from our children.
So climate change is a justice issue. And it’s a spiritual issue, too. I titled these remarks “Climate change: An emergency of the heart,” because in the face of the climate crisis, it’s so easy to get emotionally overwhelmed, to go into panic mode and be flooded by anxiety, or to shut down entirely, go numb and not feel a thing, because we don’t know what to do with our fear and anger and grief.
Each of you probably has your own favorite “go to” strategy for avoiding your feelings. Here are a few popular methods. Some of us get into our heads and give all our attention to mastering the facts – we intend to stay on top of every last fact about the rate of melting ice, every last bit of awful climate news, every single detail about the terms of a Senate bill. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for mastering essential facts and for educating ourselves and staying informed. But sometimes we can get so busy using our wonderful brains to analyze, memorize, conceptualize, and so on, that we lose touch with our inner landscape. Then we wonder why we’re so short-tempered or why we woke up with insomnia or why we got into a car accident. It’s only when we’re connected with our feelings that we have access to our emotional intelligence, to our intuition and moral imagination. When we get into our heads and lose contact with our greater intelligence, we forget who we are and we act, as Joanna Macy puts it, like “brains on a stick.”
Another strategy to avoid our feelings is to get really busy. If I stay super busy, if I have an endless list of things to do, if I try to cram in more tasks in a day than any human beings could possibly accomplish, then I won’t have to feel the clench in my belly or the ache in my heart.
Addictive behaviors are another “go-to” strategy. Don’t like what I’m feeling? Maybe it’s time to do some shopping, eat another cookie, have a smoke, have a drink – there are lots of ways to go numb and repress what’s going on inside.
Yes, we are in a climate emergency. We’re also in an emergency of the heart. We need to learn to be “first responders” to ourselves and to each other. We need to be gentle with ourselves and with each other. We can’t think our way out of anxiety. So I will share three remedies, three spiritual practices for responding to the cry of the heart.
I invite us to pray. I invite us to explore practices that quiet our minds, bring us into the present moment, and help us listen to our deepest wisdom. This could include practices of mindfulness, practices of gratefulness, practices of meditation and contemplative prayer. Practices like these help us to open to the deep inner wisdom that is always speaking in our hearts. Practices of prayer and meditation help us to listen to the inner voice of love.
Here’s a quote from Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist monk and prolific writer who practiced contemplative prayer: “If we descend into the depth of our own spirit and arrive at our own center, we confront the inescapable fact that at the root of our existence we are in immediate and constant contact with God.”
That’s a very different image of God than the one we may be used to. God is not “out there,” far away in the heavens. God is “in here,” closer than our next breath.
I invite us to allow ourselves to grieve. We have lost so much, and there is more loss ahead. I invite us to let ourselves feel the pain so that we are able to move forward and to be fully alive. Until we allow ourselves to grieve, parts of ourselves will stay numb, even dead.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a climate summit in Washington, DC, and I happened to be seated beside the Executive Director of the US Climate Action Network. Our task at each table was to do a go-round and to name the top three things that need to be done in order to tackle climate change. The first suggestion from this activist was: Grieve.
Let me add that there are two ways to grieve: one is to grieve alone, in a state of despair – the kind of grief that does not bring healing. The other way to grieve is to grieve within the embrace of love. If we believe in God, we do this when we pray our grief: we grieve in the presence of a loving God who embraces and shares in everything we feel. But whatever our religious beliefs, we can grieve with each other and we can hold each other with love.
Finally, I invite us to discover who we really are. I brought in this icon of St. Francis, who is often called the patron saint of ecology. You can see that Francis didn’t think that that he was alone and that his identity stopped with his skin. He is interpenetrated by other creatures – by wolf, bird, turtle, and snake – and even by elements like wind and fire. He spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
Francis’ daily prayer was “Who are you, God, and who am I?” Pray that prayer for a while and see what happens! Our identity does not stop with our skin!
When we experience ourselves like that, as interpenetrated with all of life, then we know that when we take action to save life on earth, we do so in the company of the trees, of the earth and sky. When we stand up for life – when we get arrested in a protest against fossil fuels, when we divest, when we take whatever actions we’re called to take – the trees are thanking us. The animals are thanking us. We are not alone. The whole creation is offering its support.
Thank you for the work you’re doing to re-weave the web of life. I may have the title, “Missioner for Creation Care,” but I only hold that title on your behalf. Each of you – everyone in this room, every single one of you – you too are missioners for Creation care.
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.
“You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.” (Psalm 16:11)
I am blessed to be with you this morning. Thank you, Thomas, for inviting me. I serve the other diocese in Massachusetts as the Missioner for Creation Care, so I travel from church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our Christian call to protect the Earth. This morning I must begin with a word about the violence in Paris and in Beirut. Our hearts go out to everyone affected by these acts of terrorism, to the people who were wounded and to the innocents who died, to the families who mourn, to the first responders, and to everyone who is playing some part in weaving these two rattled, frightened, assaulted cities back together into a place of security and peace.
These tragic events shock us. They move us to anger, fear, and grief, for we feel a visceral connection with our French brothers and sisters across the Atlantic, with our Lebanese brothers and sisters across the Mediterranean, and with people everywhere who are subject to acts of violence and terror. We share their human vulnerability. We, too, are mortal. Like it or not, we too live in a world of danger, violence, and uncertainty.
Jesus also lived in such a world, and every year, in late November, as the cycle of the church year draws to a close and we start to head into Advent, we hear Scripture readings that turn our attention to the end times, giving us images of breakdown and distress. In today’s Gospel passage, just as Jesus is coming out of the temple one of his disciples admires how solid the building is, how large it is, how grand. Surely it will last forever! But Jesus turns to him and says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2). All will be thrown down. He goes on to predict natural disaster and social unrest, “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7a). “Nation will rise against nation,” he says, “and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines” (Mark 13:8).
Christianity is bracingly realistic about the human condition and the reality of natural disaster and human-caused disaster. Today Jesus predicts suffering and turmoil, and he says, “All will be thrown down.” Yet in the very same passage, in practically the very same breath, he also says: “Do not be alarmed” (Mark 13:7). “Do not be alarmed… This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (Mark 13:8).
Birth pangs? It seems that Jesus was so deeply rooted and grounded in the love of God, so attuned to God’s dream for the world, so open to God’s creative Spirit and power, that even in the midst of suffering and war, even in the midst of violence, terrorism, and death, he could see beyond everything that was passing away and stand fast in the unshakable, ever-new, ever-abundant love of God. Jesus trusted in God’s abiding presence and in God’s vision for the future. He trusted in God’s dream that human beings can find peace within themselves, with each other, and with the whole creation. Jesus knew that even in the midst of death, something new and holy is being born, and he offered himself to that birthing process as a midwife, a healer and peacemaker. He showed us the path of life and he invited us to walk it with him.
I wonder what it would it be like to share so consciously in Jesus’ mission of justice, compassion, and hope that we, too, thought of ourselves as midwives helping a new world to be born. I wonder what it would be like to throw our selves into birthing that new world with the same ardor that Hannah felt as she prayed to conceive and give birth to a child. As we heard in today’s first reading, Hannah prayed so ardently to be a generator of life that the priest who was watching her accused her of being drunk!
May we all get drunk like that! Heaven knows that our beautiful, suffering world needs people who are wholeheartedly committed to the struggle to safeguard life as it has evolved on this planet and to conceive and bring forth a compassionate, just, and life-sustaining society. We know what we’re up against. The terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut are linked with other deadly threats, such as climate change. Researchers tell us that ISIS, the Islamic State, arose partly because of climate change, which caused an extreme drought in Syria between 2006 and 2009. When crops failed, as many as 1.5 million people were forced to migrate from rural areas into cities. Social unrest escalated into civil war and eventually into the multifaceted conflict that now affects many millions of people.
Of course climate change is not the only cause of terrorism, but it’s what the Pentagon calls a “threat multiplier.” Earlier this week the World Bank – hardly a leftist organization – warned that unless we change course quickly and rein in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will drive 100 million people into extreme poverty – extreme poverty – within the next 15 years. We don’t have to be expert analysts in order to grasp how much suffering, upheaval and conflict that would engender worldwide.
When I look around, I see a planet at risk of catapulting into runaway climate disruption because of an ever-expanding economic system that depends on fossil fuels. I see terrorism and poverty, rising seas and melting glaciers, and I see people so locked in fear, anger, or despair that they are unable to imagine, much less to create, a better future. It’s as if we’ve fallen under a spell and made what U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon has denounced as a “global suicide pact.”
But I also see this: person after person reaching deep into their souls and then standing up to offer their energy and time to the shared struggle to re-weave the fabric of life and to create a just and sustainable future. I see a wave of religious protest and activism rising up around the world, propelled in part by the release of Pope Francis’ groundbreaking encyclical, Laudato Si, which makes a powerful connection between the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. I see people rising up for life, refusing to settle for a killing status quo, and proclaiming with one voice that climate change is a spiritual and moral issue that must be tackled without delay.
Just think of all the signs we see of a new social order being born. We see people blocking the path of new fracked gas pipelines and being arrested for civil disobedience as they read aloud from Pope Francis’ encyclical. We see people lobbying for a fair price on carbon, so that we can build a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and improves public health. We see our own Episcopal Church deciding – miracles of miracles! – to divest from fossil fuels, since it makes no financial or moral sense to invest in companies that are ruining the planet. We see new coalitions being formed and new alliances forged, as people realize that the environmental crisis is closely connected with the social crises of poverty, income inequality, and racial injustice. Just this week I spent a day lobbying at the State House with a new interfaith coalition that is dedicated to climate justice right here in Massachusetts. Together we are fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to accelerate a transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind, that are accessible to all our communities, including low-income. As climate activist Bill McKibben has pointed out, “The fight for a just world is the same as the fight for a livable one.”
The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God calls human beings to know that we belong to one Earth, that we form one human family, and that God entrusted the Earth and all its residents to our care. We may live in a society where we’re told that pleasure lies in being self-centered consumers who grab and hoard everything we can for ourselves and the devil take the hindmost, but we know the truth: our deepest identity and joy is found in being rooted and grounded in love and in serving the common good. With the psalmist, we turn to our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, and say: “You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore” (Psalm 16:11).
Some people named the week beginning September 21, 2015, the Week of Moral Action for Climate Justice. Others called it Pope Week. I want to call it Watershed Week: the week when Americans streamed to Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia, like rivers pouring through a watershed, eager to hear Pope Francis speak about our call to love each other and all Creation. The week was a watershed in another sense, too: a turning point where everything changed.
I spent most of that week in D.C., swimming through crowds and participating in prayer vigils, concerts, strategy sessions, and rallies. On Monday I gave the opening prayer at the National Prayer Breakfast on Creation Care, an annual event organized by the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care (NRCCC). NRCCC is composed of members of all the major religious groups in America, including Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, Evangelicals and Orthodox Christians. Joined in prayer, and united with people of every religious tradition, we advocate for a right relationship to God’s creation.
The Open Letter to President Obama focuses on actions he can take without approval of Congress, such as becoming an advocate for a carbon tax, modifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership, rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline, and rejecting new coal leases on public lands. The letter urges the President to adopt the language of “emergency” whenever he speaks about climate change, and “to mobilize the nation with the same focus and determination with which we mobilized during World War II, so that we reach 100 percent renewable energy in two or three decades.”
We were gratified to hear from the Council on Environmental Quality that the letter was shared widely with the White House climate team. Maybe it will make some waves.
On Tuesday a group of NRCCC members headed to the State Department to meet with Karen Florini, Deputy Special Envoy on Climate Change, and Amy Willis, in the Secretary’s Office for Religion and Global Affairs. With only two months to go until the crucial international climate talks in Paris, we wanted to express in the strongest possible terms our desire for bold leadership by the United States. Ms. Florini welcomed our faith-rooted advocacy – she herself is a person of faith – and we talked about how to push for effective climate action both at home and abroad in the midst of an obstructionist Congress. As she put it, “We are under active political assault.” (Learn more about the visit here.)
From the State Department we headed to the Senate Building to meet with the legal counsel of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. We gave him an earful about the moral mandate to tackle the climate crisis, citing science and Scripture, ethics and economics. In turn, we listened to his concerns about unemployment in Kentucky and the future of coal. A member of our group pointed out, “Coal is over.” So the question becomes: can Republicans and Democrats work together to make a swift and just transition to a new economy based on clean energy? That is something to work and pray for.
Wednesday began with an interfaith coalition of climate leaders meeting over breakfast with the staff of ecoAmerica. EcoAmerica has been instrumental in developing best practices for climate communication, and its Blessed Tomorrow campaign is mobilizing faith communities to engage in the struggle to stabilize the climate. The offices of ecoAmerica happen to be directly across the street from St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where Pope Francis spoke for one hour to Roman Catholic bishops and cardinals. We relished having the chance to see the Pope as he entered and left the sanctuary.
On Wednesday night I joined a large group on the steps of John Marshall Park near the National Mall to mark the end of Yom Kippur. At the start of Yom Kippur the night before, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling had delivered a powerful sermon that called for atonement – At-One-Ment – with the Earth and each other, a watershed moment that can only take place when we “feel in our hearts and know in our guts that what happens to the oceans, to the forests, to other species, to other people is also happening to us.”
A multi-faith prayer vigil completed the marking of Yom Kippur, and I gave the opening prayer, lifting up Jesus’ cry from the cross as the cry of the Earth-community.
“Why have you forsaken me?” We hear that cry
in the din of collapsing glaciers as they tumble into the sea,
in the crash of forests as they are felled,
and in the blast of mountaintops as they are blown open for extraction of
“Why have you forsaken me?” We hear that cry
in the murmur of refugees searching for water in lands scorched dry,
in the diminishing bleats and roars and chirps worldwide as species go extinct,
one by one,
and in the silence of dying coral reefs as they bleach in acid seas.
At the foot of the cross, we hear the cry of all humanity, and especially the poor, as the climate crisis unfolds around us.
We hear the groaning of all Creation: “Why have you forsaken me?”
The prayer ended with an appeal for divine mercy, asking God to empower us not to forsake each other, but instead to stand with the vulnerable, the poor, and the living world around us. Receiving God’s forgiveness and accepting our interconnection with all Creation can be a watershed moment. The dusk drew shadows around us; above us, the stars began to shine. (The complete prayer is here. )
On Thursday morning, I joined thousands of people at a reserved area on the lawn in front of the Capitol Building, to listen and watch on large screens as Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress. Eventually I moved further back on the National Mall to participate in the Moral Action on Climate Justice Rally, which featured lively music, speakers, and a diverse throng of activists. On either side of the stage stretched two long banners in English and in Spanish, quoting from the papal encyclical: Hear the cry of the Earth. Hear the cry of the poor.
A hush settled over the crowd as the Pope began to speak. In a world where so many leaders speak rapidly and evasively, bending the truth to suit their needs and using their words to dominate opponents, defend a narrow, partisan agenda, and push for power, it was rare and sweet to hear a leader speak slowly, truthfully, and from the heart, excluding no one and welcoming everyone. Here was a person whose humility evoked our own basic goodness as human beings, reminding us that in fact we are connected to each other, we do care about the Earth and each other, we do have the capacity to be good, we do have the power to work together and to do the right thing. Was I the only listener moved to tears? I doubt it.
After the Pope left Capitol Hill, I lingered for a while at the rally to meet with friends, old and new. Activist and writer Ted Glick was on the penultimate day of an 18-day, water-only Fast for New Permits, organized by Beyond Extreme Energy. The fast targeted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which essentially rubber-stamps approval for gas pipelines. Ted, looking tired but resolute, cited Gandhi’s insight that “fasting is the sincerest form of prayer.”
I’ve been part of the religious climate movement for many years, but I’ve never experienced as deep and wide an awakening to the urgent call to stand up for life as I did last week. In order to give our children a livable planet, we need the vision and passion of people of faith – people who can see the long view, not just short-term quarterly or annual reports; people who care about the homeless, hungry, and poor, not just about elites; people who understand that the web of life is a gift to be protected, not a commodity to be exploited and destroyed; people who place their hope not in the promise of success but in the faithfulness of God.
People like that are rising up on every side. The image of a watershed may fit this moment in history, but, so, too, does the image of a rising tide. I look back on last week as a watershed moment, because around me and within me I sense a rising tide of activism, resolve, and love.
The most inspiring climate song I’ve yet heard was written by Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman and Yotam Schachter, and first performed by Rabbi Shoshana and Rev. Fred Small on September 20 – just in time for that pivotal week. They also went on to perform it at the National Cathedral on Thursday night.
The song is called: “The tide is rising and so are we.”