Resistance and Solace
By J. Mark Davidson
The boy was 12 years old when he saw it. It was near Greensboro, in this same piedmont bioregion we live in and it was just about this same time of the year:
“It was an early afternoon in May when I first saw the meadow. The field was covered with lilies rising above the thick grass. A magic moment. This moment gave to my life something, I know not what, that seems to explain my life at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember. It was not only the lilies. It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in an otherwise clear sky… As the years pass, this moment returns to me, and whenever I think about my basic life attitude and the whole trend of my mind and the causes that I have given my efforts to, I seem to come back to this moment and the impact it has had on my feeling of what is real and worthwhile in life… whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good; whatever is opposed to this meadow or negates it is not good. My life orientation is that simple.” *
Those are the words of Thomas Berry, noted ecological visionary from North Carolina.
Jesus told a parable about a man who found a treasure buried in a field, and it was for him, like a merchant in search of the finest pearls finally finding the pearl of great price. That meadow was Tom Berry’s pearl of great price because he found there what he later called “the numinous dimension” of the universe. It was the first moment in his life when he realized he was part of a sacred universe, that he belonged to a community of living organisms much vaster than his little human world, and in that joyful realization he grasped something essential to being fully human, fully alive. Einstein once wrote that the notion that we are somehow separate from this sacred matrix of life is what he called “a kind of optical delusion of human consciousness.” He said, “This delusion is a kind of prison, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of Nature in its beauty.” In this sense, what a young Thomas Berry stumbled upon on that bright May afternoon was the treasure of glimpsing the sacredness of all things – and what an amazing gift that was! But also in that field he discovered a key… a key he could use to let himself out of prison – the prison of ever imagining himself as separate. He went on to say “The natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong. To be alienated from this community is to become destitute in all that makes us human. To damage the community is to diminish our own existence.”
Wendell Berry has a pond somewhere in his native Kentucky where he knows to go and lie down, where he can get right by gazing at the wood drake resting in his beauty on the water and the great heron feeding.** Thomas Berry had his meadow. The psalmist had his desert night sky when he wrote, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” It’s wherever we go to hear “the great Liturgy of the heavens,” where we hear the voices of the rivers, the speech of the mountains, the wordless praise of the waves, the trees, the winged creatures. Nature’s cascade of praise pouring forth through all the earth. It’s wherever we go to find our pearl of great price, our solace, our freedom, that saving awareness of our interconnectedness, the sacred community to which we belong.
To read the whole sermon, visit the website for the Church of Reconciliation.
* from Thomas Berry, The Great Work
Thursday, January 25, 2018
Nature Heals the Broken Heart
by Patricia K. Tull
It has been a long year of returns falling short of efforts. I sometimes find myself wondering whether all that strategizing, advocating, teaching, and LED installing has helped to improve our environmental prognosis in any perceivable way. Just when we thought we were moving toward worldwide accord, our own nation’s government left its people, businesses, cities, states, and other nations to fulfill the Paris accords. In fact, my own state of Indiana, the one that burns more coal per capita than any other, has now upped the ante with new legislation discouraging rooftop solar. Evidence alone can’t keep us going, and it often doesn’t come when needed. But one thing can soothe the bruised environmental heart: love. More specifically, biophilia: love for nature and its processes, answered by gifts from life itself.
Once last summer I was taking a stretch break, tramping through a pasture under the heat. Everything was still. Then a scream six feet away shattered the air. A sapling shuddered and shook, and a wild turkey flew out, screeching as if I had shot it. Fluff balls that I at first took for mice, then realized were chicks, scurried into the weeds. The mother, still raging, fell to the path beyond me and did an unconvincing broken wing dance, obviously aiming to lure me away. Of course I did what she wanted, and regretted disturbing her family’s peace. But I also exulted in having made contact, in witnessing, for the first time, a big bird’s crazy bid to influence my behavior. I wondered if my own songs and dances, my own attempts to influence behaviors, are just as comically awkward.
Biophilia is fulfilled in smaller doses too, when we observe tree swallows dipping and diving, or swim out to snack on a branch of wild blackberries arching prettily from the pond bank, attend to the music of chirps and coos, or make a point of witnessing a rising moon or a newly fallen snow. Such gifts of serendipity make no demands and offer no disappointments. Instead, they come as grace, restoring balance to the hard work of environmental advocacy.
We aren’t often the ones to see our own results. So many times I’ve told stories, taught workshops, preached sermons, and handed out resources, only to believe I was simply heaping words upon distracted souls. But then I hear the pastors of two nearby congregations offering a roomful of listeners their own arguments for creation care and recognize that the message of earth care is indeed alive and well, and doesn’t depend on me.
Patricia Tull is A.B. Rhodes Professor Emerita of Hebrew Bible at Louisville Seminary, author of Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis, and recipient of the 2016 William Gibson Ecojustice Award.
For the Beauty of the Earth
By Jimmie Hawkins
As people of faith, there are certain things which inspire us to care for creation and calls for us to continue this work.
First, our belief in a God of creation. We believe that “God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1, NRSV) and has given human beings the responsibility of stewardship of God’s “good” creation. That means taking care of it, refusing to allow pollution to spoil the air, land and sea.
Second, the recognition of the intimate connection between human lives and the well-being of this planet demands that, out of a sense of self-preservation, we do no harm to creation. Whatever we do to bring damage to God’s creation, will ultimately bring harm to our lives, especially to the most vulnerable who live here. It endangers our elderly and sick. And perhaps most of all, it places our children at great risk.
Third, scripture commands it. Genesis 1:28 reads, “And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Synonyms for “subdue” are pacify, calm, mollify and placate; another word for “dominion” is protectorate. We are not conquerors but stewards of God’s world which is a gift from a gracious and generous creator who simply demands that we take care of what has been given to us.
We are called to be meticulous, diligent and industrious in our determination to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink and the land we inhabit. This is a fulfillment of obedient discipleship to the Lord Jesus who challenges us to “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:28b-29) The beauty of creation must be maintained by all who affirm the love of the God of creation.
Rev. Jimmie Ray Hawkins serves as the Director of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Office of Public Witness in Washington DC. Prior to moving to DC, he served for twenty years as the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Durham, NC. His community ministry includes being a leader for the Moral Monday Movement since its onset in 2013. He served as a member of the NC NAACP Executive Committee and has been active in justice advocacy throughout his ministry.
Let There Be
by Lauren Wright Pittman
12x12 acrylic and ink on canvas
Genesis 1 has always moved in a radial fashion in my imagination. I decided to create rippling rings of creation, one building on the next, to show that the work of creation is not finished with God’s rest—the work continues. The work of creation doesn't end with Jesus' death—he still lives. The new creation has just begun to unfurl. We are called into the active and often difficult work of creating beauty in the world. Our act of continuing God’s creation is the act of bringing justice into the world. Beauty begets beauty.
Lauren is an artist, graphic designer, and seminarian, and she is the winner of the 2017 Emerging Leader Award. She studied Media Design at Middle Tennessee State University, worked as a wetlands advocate in Southern Louisiana, and went to seminary to piece together her passions for artistic expression, design, and Creation Care. While in seminary, Lauren found a passion for seeking after God and processing scripture through visual exploration. Lauren is a creative collaborator with Sanctified Art, and is available for painting commissions, theologically-grounded logo and print design, and Visio Divina workshops. To check out more of her artwork, visit sanctifiedart.com & lewpstudio.com
This is My Mother’s World
By Alonzo Johnson
Coming from a bustling, densely populated city in the Northeast, seeing pollution everywhere was a regular aspect of everyday life. Smoke bellowed out of the landscape of industrial factories; there were mountains of trash in the streets. Growing up, my mother was very clear about my sisters and I being responsible for putting litter in its proper place and, as she would say “taking pride” where we lived. The instinct to be tidy and care for the earth started very early for me. I realized that a large part of my mother’s concern about taking care of where we live was probably related to her faith. She felt that it was disrespectful to treat “God’s earth” capriciously. For my mother “how we lived” reflected who we were and what we believed in. In this way, my mother’s words served as a form of resistance from carelessness and laziness. My mother also believed that the earth blessed us – it gave us food and air, even though we lived in the context of urban blight and industrial waste, earth care was still important.
Very recently, through my work with The Self Development of People, we, through the West African Initiative (in collaboration with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the Presbyterian Hunger Program), helped farmers improve food security and produce food to sell and use to create incomes to support families and individuals. When we were travelling to visit our community partners in one of the remote villages in Sierra Leone, a woman with passion stood up and tearfully expressed her thankfulness for the seeds and training for farming skills desperately needed to grow food for the village. Even in the aftermath of a brutal eleven-year civil war and the Ebola epidemic that took the lives of many men in the village, she lifted up the importance of the work of the women, and their access to seeds and training that allowed them to care for the village. She pointed to the young people who were also gathered together and expressed jubilance for the food they could produce to help them grow. This gathering had an incredibly profound effect on me, and I could hear the echo of my mother’s words about the way the earth takes care of us when we take care of it. Inspired by this visit, I, for the first time in my life, started growing a garden in homage to the profound power and beauty of the earth and how it sustains us. I think about the hymn This is my Father’s (or in this case Mother’s) World which reminds us of God’s gift of the blessings of the earth and our very important call to be stewards of it.
Rev. Alonzo Johnson is Coordinator for the Self-Development of People Program (SDOP) of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Rev. Johnson has 25 years of experience in urban, youth, education, creative arts, and social justice ministries.
Friday, January 12, 2018
Theology and Ethic of the Land
“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace. To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue. To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside.”--Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949)
My new year began on the right note the first weekend with a visit to the Southern Appalachian mountain cove farm that has been in my family since 1789. As the first generation to be born off this farm, I was blessed throughout my childhood and youth by monthly trips with my parents as they returned to their roots. By the time my late mother was a girl, one in two persons in the United States lived in urban areas. By the time I came along, that ratio had changed to two in three. For millennials, that percentage increased to four in five.
Even as people continue moving off farms and farther away from rural farms, a recent National Gardening Survey revealed that millennials’ interest in gardening has increased the number of practitioners of the nation’s #1 hobby to over 5 million.
My church, Caldwell Presbyterian, is one of at least ten congregations in the Presbytery of Charlotte with a community garden. (What better way to be relevant to millennials!) Even so, our summer youth mission trip to Heifer Ranch in Arkansas was an enlightening experience for the youth. During group sharing times in the evenings after working on the ranch, more than one of our youth vowed to change their eating habits after their eyes were opened to the environmental and human costs of our food production system.
Presbyterians for Earth Care biennial conferences are often a rich source of information and inspiration on sustainable agriculture. One conference featured a breakout session on permaculture. During another conference, Duke Divinity School scholar Ellen Davis taught us to read the Hebrew scripture with agrarian eyes. And at another, Columbia Theological Seminary’s William Brown shared his translation of one of my favorite scripture verses, Gen. 2:15: we are called to “serve and preserve” the Garden, Creation.
This year, the federal Farm Bill is up for reauthorization for another five years. This comprehensive legislation includes a nutrition title that provides for programs that address hunger, and a conservation title that includes such provisions as incentives for farming practices that promote soil health while reducing soil erosion.
Our organization’s name includes the tagline, “An Ecojustice Network.” Working together with faith organizations and other groups that are advocating for a sustainable agriculture in the 2018 Farm Bill, Presbyterians for Earth Care is guided by Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice, a major policy statement adopted by the 202nd General Assembly in 1990, which reads in part: "The churches have a historic responsibility to be supportive of land stewardship, farm people, and rural community life. An important dimension of this responsibility is educational—nurturing a theology and ethic of the land. The Presbyterian church working with other denominations. . . should foster responsibility for protecting and restoring creation by building awareness of what it takes to till and keep the land."
At Heifer Ranch, dining hall staff daily monitor food waste by weighing what’s left in bowls and on plates. Reducing food waste and adopting a plant-based diet—along with dramatically reducing emissions from home energy use and minimizing automobile and plane travel—were one of three commitments contained in “Walk on Earth Gently: A Multi-Faith Invitation to Sustainable Lifestyles” addressed “to all members of the human family and to leaders gathered at the COP23 climate talks in Bonn, Germany last September. Presbyterians for Earth Care was among the organizations signing this invitation.
This is time of the year when farm fields in much of the Northern hemisphere lay fallow. Resting. I close where I began here, with a word from the father of the land ethic, Aldo Leopold:
"A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such."