Restoring The Waters

Category Archives: God Talk (optional)

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The Three Trees ~ an old story told anew

“I should be content,” writes the poet David Ignatow, “To look at a mountain for what it is, not as a commentary on my life.”

As many of us have experienced, this winter of 2014 has been snowy, cold, and interminably long. For me personally, it has seemed even longer, for I had my left shoulder replaced with titanium in December, and, until recently, have been pretty much homebound. As a result, our two rescue dogs have spent at least three and sometimes four days per week in “day care”.

Jim is their taxi and they arrive home in a heap at about 6 pm. Then it’s my turn. I put on my goose down parka, my red hat with its tassel and ear flaps, my mittens, and my Bogs boots which have had crampons attached since early December. Out we go, the dogs and I, into four degrees, maybe eleven degrees, maybe snow. They romp, and I sit on the deck chair that is buried up to its seat in snow and ice.

Whether the sky is cloudy or clear, the view from my perch is the same. I look at three trees in the woods, two oaks and one maple, just their trunks and branches, no leaves. It has seemed to me these denizens of the woods have a message for me, and I have been listening as intently as I know how.

I think of Jalâluddîn Rumi, “The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you, don’t go back to sleep,” even though it’s evening, not dawn, and trees, not breeze. What is the message? I strain to hear, and nothing comes to me. I listen, and hear no words. This has been my evening ritual since my December surgery.

One evening it hits me. I have been asking and listening in the wrong language, and I find myself singing snatches of an ancient hymn, “What language shall I borrow?” What is the language of trees?

It is now close to 7 pm, and the sky is a deep blue; the trees are black against the night sky. I marvel at their stalwart trunks and stark bare branches, even the most scrawny among them with distinct clarity, as it is still too cold for the early swelling of spring buds. I am looking at three trees, true, but what I am looking at, what I can see is that only which lives above the surface of the ground.

Below the surface, the story is different. The roots of these trees form a broad network of intricate exchanges, roots from one tree interweaving with roots from the others, a highway of interconnections. The tree roots work as one, breathing one another into life, feeding and nourishing one another into life.

Sadly, I think, people of churches, both ordained and lay, will tend to leap too quickly into the Christian theology of Three in One: God the Father; God the Son; God the Holy Spirit, or Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. But do we need to go there? I mean, we can go there, and many do, but might there be a cost? Do we need to make that leap into a trinitarian religion in order to understand the universal narrative as sacred in and of itself? I think there is a cost. For one, it excludes more people than not from the conversation. More damaging, it discourages humans from the recognition that the earth is sacred, period.

It is likely, I believe, that if humans, whether or not we claim a religion, could come to understand the earth itself and the actions of sun, wind, water, plants and creatures as sacred, we would be far more inclined to attitudes of love and compassion. Further, if we could could come to understand ourselves as integral to that vast underground network of root systems, we would be far more inclined to attitudes of diversity and justice.

“I should be content to look at a mountain for what it is, not as a commentary on my life.”

At last I am beginning to understand what the trees behind my garden have to say to me, and they are telling me in the language of trees. What these trees do is sacred work, breathing life into one another, feeding one another into life. This is the very definition of sacrament. And by no means are these three trees a unit unto themselves. Their roots extend deep into the woods, nourishing trees that are weaker, hungrier, sun-deprived, whether oak or maple or birch or beech or white pine.

We may choose to do so, but there is no need, to overlay these sacramental acts of breathing and feeding with any human-organized religious construct.

Three trees, one tree, a diverse community of trees; it is miracle enough.


Does the Language Matter? A Question of Paradox

This is a question that has puzzled me for a long time, both as a clergy person and as an ecologist. The question arises from my conviction that language matters because it is formative. Whether or not we are conscious of it, language forms and shapes our attitudes, our ethics, and our behaviors. Here is the question. Is it possible to reconcile the language which calls humans to two things at once: our rightful place within the earth community, and our rightful responsibilities with regard to the health of the planet? Is it possible to find the language that can point to both?

In the year 2000, the Earth Charter Commission, begun as a United Nations initiative, released what is known as the Earth Charter. The brilliance of it lay in the recognition that ecological justice cannot be separated out from the social injustices of poverty, economic development, respect for human rights, democracy, and peace. In other words, there is no human justice outside of ecological justice; they are intertwined.

As I have read through it several times, I continue to be struck by the intricacies of language. The Charter’s first premise, that humanity is part of an intricate and vast evolving universe, suggests that humans are not separate creatures but integral to the biosphere. Yet it speaks of the resilience of the community of life and the well-being of humanity as though they were different entities. In fact, the paragraph heading reads, Earth, Our Home, and although a stretch could be made, it’s pretty evident that the our refers to the human home.

I am asking that you who might be reading this reflection not assume that I am talking against The Earth Charter, because I am not. I think it’s a terrific document. Yet I am of two minds about the language. On the one hand, the document is intended for human reflection and activism and, as such, is addressed to the humans. On the other hand, language is formative and such language that serves to distinguish humankind from other ecological systems is problematic. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and have come to the only possible conclusion: we have to learn to live in the paradox.

The language of The Earth Charter is about as careful and deliberate as any I know, which is why I begin with it. Yet the paradox, I think, cannot be resolved. It is the reality that humans have capacities distinct from all other forms, with regard to the biotic and abiotic diversity of the planet. And yet, every diverse form of which Earth consists – including the human – is subject, ultimately, to the same pressures of interdependence and interconnectivity as any other.

Having set the bar pretty high regarding this question of formative language, I would like to hold up against The Earth Charter, the language of four other documents.

The first is the bible. In the Genesis stories of Creation, we hear a couple things: one, although all creation is worthy of blessing, the humans are the Chosen, called out by God, set apart, and awarded dominion and rule over all creatures. The humans are also charged with care taking; the Church calls it stewardship. I want to say unequivocally that the language here does, in fact, matter. Stewardship implies oversight, management. It does not imply – as The Earth Charter does – that all beings are interdependent. Moreover, as the language and ethical tenets of scripture serve to dictate the shape of the worship of the church, religious assemblies are deeply imbued with a theology that cannot stand the scrutiny of the science. Humans are not called out, not the Chosen, not set apart. Whether we are biblical literalists or prefer to understand the creation stories as myth, the theology is formative. The language matters because it has formed and shaped us for millennia, even those of us (the nones) who claim no religious affiliation.

The second document is The Charter for Compassion, a global effort initiated by Karen Armstrong. Not quite as problematic as the scriptural account of creation, maybe, but its sole focus on human-to-human behavior omits two significant principles. The first, articulated so clearly in The Earth Charter, is the recognition of the interdependence and interconenctedness of every form of life. The second is the implication by omission, that compassion of human to human – that social justice human to human – can in fact be accomplished without the recognition that eco-justice (eco-compassion) and human justice (human compassion) are intricately intertwined. One cannot happen without the other. I like to think in terms of possibilities, and not many additional words, it is certainly possible to widen the embrace of compassion to include compassion for Earth.

The third document of note is The United Nations Millennium Development Goals. There are eight of them, including the eradication of poverty and hunger, universal education, gender equality, and several health provisions. Number Seven (next to last) is Environmental Sustainability, as though the environment were in some way distinct from the global conditions of poverty, ill health, hunger, inaccessibility to clean water, etc. Next to last as though the conditions of poverty and hunger could be addressed without addressing ecological healing and health. In a similar way as above, it takes very little to move from the goal of environmental sustainability as the next to last goal, to language which might allow us to understand ecological health as the ground for all the other Millennium Development Goals.

Finally, the United Religions Initiative, an effort begun in 1993 in the Episcopal Diocese of California by its bishop William Swing. I’m including this one as a solid effort to affirm the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life forms, human and non-human. The URI formed the charter for religious peace and cooperation, yet understood the delicate interconnections of the Earth Community; peace and justice cannot be separated from the health and protection of Earth.

 Therefore, as interdependent people rooted in our traditions, we now unite for the benefit of our Earth community.

We unite to build cultures of peace and justice.

We unite to heal and protect the Earth.

We unite to build safe places for conflict resolution, healing and reconciliation.

I want to say, in this brief examination of these four resources, that it is not my intention to challenge or diminish any effort for good. Maybe it would be better said that I am calling all of us to an awakening of the importance of language as it expresses a philosophy or theology. Human justice and peace cannot be accomplished without ecological justice and respect for all creation. It’s not possible. Ecological healing cannot be accomplished from a position of over-seer, particularly when the over-seer (steward) is convinced of his/her right to do upon Earth as s/he wishes. It’s not possible.

The better efforts toward justice and peace are those which make explicit the intricate interconnections of all forms, biotic and abiotic. Of these above, The Earth Charter – despite the essential linguistic paradox of this and all efforts – comes closest to a philosophy of not only of the value of all beings, but of our the essential interdependence. It’s only from this ground that we can even begin to attend to the healing of our planet.

What Language Shall We Use?

Once again, the images come from the generous camera and heart of Rex Nelson. This post follows on the heels of a recent conversation with my friend Candis Whitney who chairs the Central NH Permaculture Meet-Up. Check out the site. Build one in your area.

For the past few years, in my book and in my blogging, I have – with intention – been extrapolating the spiritual language of the Church from its institutional life and grafting it onto the root stock of where most of us actually live, that is, outside the Church. I am wanting to make accessible to all of us, the language familiar to people in churches, language developed to give flesh to the profound spiritual questions around all life’s exigencies to which we yearn to attribute meaning, suffering and dying, for example, or love, or – even more basic – why am I here? My thinking has been simply this: the language best suited to articulate the sacred doesn’t belong solely in the Church; it belongs to all of us.

And when I speak of the language of the Church, I am not talking about the archaic stilted (still loved by some) language of thee’s and thou’s and wither thou goest’s and praiseth . . .

Yet in an institutional way, I suspect churches are quite satisfied to perpetuate the illusion that the meaning of all things holy and the language which describes them belong inside the institutional orbit; if you want to participate, then you have to come inside.

The assumption is patently untrue, and yet those of us in churches and those of us outside live as though it were. I think of it as the language of sacred meaning, and most of us outside churches aren’t familiar with it. Truth be told, many people in churches aren’t familiar with it either.

Case in point, me. I rarely spoke a word during my first year of seminary. I didn’t know the language, and I didn’t know the meanings of words that my peers tossed about with abandon. During my first weeks, I called my friend Dick and asked him, “What does liturgy mean?” When he began to expound philosophically and historically, I interrupted him, “No, What does the word liturgy mean?” I wrote my best friend’s mother, “What are the names of things you find in a church? Why do people get baptized? What is Compline? Why would somebody ask me if I was a postulant; what are they asking, exactly? What are the names of the clothes that priests wear? What does incarnation mean?”

I dared once to approach a fellow student and asked her why she wanted to be ordained. She puffed herself up like a blowfish, and added a couple inches to her short frame. “It’s all sacramental, of course,” she said. I called my friend Dick. “What’s a sacrament?”

During a required summer internship, I worked in a Psychiatric unit, on a lock ward. After one particularly distressing encounter with a woman who had climbed over the wall, had broken a glass Pepsi bottle against a rock, and then swallowed the pieces, my supervisor asked me to reflect theologically.

“I don’t know what you’re asking of me,” I told him.

“I want you to talk to me about the meaning of this encounter,” he said.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I told him.

Over the past few years, I have watched those of us committed to ecological healing, watched those of us who have recognized the ever more pressing need for safe habitat for animal and bird populations displaced by the sprawling human enterprise, struggle with or even be unaware that the spiritual thread is essential to the strength of the environmental movement and the health of the planet. And the spiritual thread needs commensurate spiritual language.

The irony is that the very language we need to express our deepest yearnings for the health and well-being of what Carl Safina calls the whole enterprise, has been sequestered within the confines of the Church. The further irony is that my attempt to bring the spiritual language out into the world is like introducing something so alien and alienating into our communities that the experience that I described above, of my silence in the face of all that I didn’t know, is multiplied exponentially.

SO, what to do. How do we begin to have the conversation together about the sacredness of earth, water, creature, wind, and fire?

Well, first, I’d like to ask you who are reading this, to consider how you go about describing that which gives your life, your relationships, your work, your passions, their most profound meaning. Why do you care about the healing of the planet? What does it mean to you that humans are an integral part of a vast living network, interconnected and interdependent, and why does it matter? What language have you found to give expression to all that is sacred, mysterious, unknowable?

For example, if you engage Rex Nelson’s images in this post, what language would you use to describe the ineffable nature of such an evening sky, ineffable meaning of more mystery and beauty than can be described in words. What does that mean, exactly? And what common language might we find? Well, when you look at Rex’s image, in what ways does the sun as it sets mirror your life? Can you see the wind and know it’s the same air you breathe? Or the clouds, and know they are the same water of which you are made? Or the image as a whole as a visual expression of the vastness of the universe? Whether or not you claim a belief in a deity, this is holy stuff. The whole world is of sacramental value; how do we learn to talk with one another about that? How do we begin to learn from it? How might this understanding inform our decision making, and our behavior toward the planet?

Or consider the three different colored blossoms on a single back yard tree? A plant scientist could explain how it happens. A Christian might see it as the symbol of a Trinitarian God. But if you are neither of those (or even if you are) how do understand it sacramentally, as the symbolic expression of a deep inner yearning, say, for peace? Or a deep yearning for the revisioning of a broken democracy? What might this tree have to teach us? What kinds of seeds ought we be planting?

This may well be the most important conversation we need to be having, and the invitation to you who read this is that you make use of the comment section at the bottom of this post.

Second, I think I am going to follow this post with a glossary, to which I will continue to add substance.

Third, I am pretty convinced that the language the Church uses to express the ineffable and unknowable sacred is powerful and explicit, equally convinced that such language serves to give spiritual meaning and depth to our lives, and, in the context of this site, spiritual meaning and depth to our ecological efforts (in a sense they are one and the same). The language of the sacred is the language of hope, and gives us resources to resist cynicism and defeat. Still, I suspect there are other ways to tease out the same things. I’d like to make this a both/and experience; for those of us outside churches who might not claim the status of believer, this is our language, too, developed over thousands of years, to give expression to the sacred.

And . . . we need to be able to talk with one another, even with the youngest among us, in ways that reclaim the spiritual underpinnings of our ecological efforts for healing. Because the spiritual thread is essential; we cannot accomplish the sea change required to turn around our behavior without it.

Fourth, I will do my best to remember that the language and thought process I use now so effortlessly is language and process that has burrowed itself deep inside me, over more than a quarter of a century, language and process which has come to me at a pretty steep cost over an even steeper learning curve.

How about that?

Eco-Spirituality ~ Thinking Like an Ecosystem

Frances Moore Lappe’s recent article in Yes Magazine, “How to Think Like an Ecosystem” brought to mind a lively round table discussion last fall when a small group of us gathered on Tuesday evenings at our village library, ostensibly to discuss my book. The conversations usually had a starting point, but often meandered in surprising and delightful ways; the focal point of the specific evening that has come to mind in connection to Frances Moor Lappe, had to do with the need to release our sense of human privilege and entitlement. A major premise of all my recent writing is that the ecological work of healing the damage humans have done to the planet cannot be accomplished from an anthropocentric perspective, that we have to release that sense of primacy in order to rejoin by intention what Barbara Brown Taylor has named the luminous web.

Frances Moore Lappe writes, “We perceive the world according to our core, often unacknowledged, assumptions. They determine, literally, what we can see and what we cannot. Nothing so wrong with that, perhaps—except that, in this crucial do-or-die moment, we’re stuck with a mental map that is life-destroying. And the premise of this map is lack—not enough of anything, from energy to food to parking spots; not enough goods and not enough goodness. In such a world, we come to believe, it’s compete or die.”

Hard not to yield to a sense of hopelessness and despair. Or, as in many cases, paralysis, cynicism, and “I’ll get mine while I can.”

But Lappe insists on an alternative mental map. “A new way of seeing that is opening up to us can form a more life-serving mental map. I call it “eco-mind”—looking at the world through the lens of ecology. This worldview recognizes that we, no less than any other organism, live in relation to everything else.”

Frances Moore Lappe convicts me with her words. I have understood for some years that “release” of our sense of human primacy is our portal into health – the healing of the earth, the waters, the air, and all creatures including humans; the healing of our broken economies (or the need to re-imagine our economies), our broken politics, our broken relationships. My concept of release, however – or letting go, or self-emptying – has always carried with it a sense of sacrifice.

In our book group that darkening evening of September, a new word entered our collective vocabulary; The word was un-encumber. It was a word of freedom, of weightlessness, of possibility and joy. It was a word of hope, a word of power. Un-encumber. Should we choose to release our insistence on human privilege and entitlement, we might live unencumbered!

Lappe insists that we can change our mental map – she calls it living from a life-serving eco-mind.  In her article, Lappe lists the six inherent traits we can foster, once we learn to navigate the world with the map of eco-mind: cooperation; empathy; fairness; efficacy; meaning; imagination, creativity, and attraction to change. This sounds to me like a world unencumbered. Imagine it. A world in which cooperating and co-creating trump competition. A world in which empathic happiness trumps money. A world in which fairness trumps injustice.

Is release, or letting go, the offspring of sacrifice? Maybe. But what if we understood release, or letting go, the practice of becoming unencumbered? What joy might lie beyond – on the other side of – our encumbered lives. Is it possible? Yes. Is it likely? That would be up to us. Life-serving? Serving of all life? Of that there is no doubt.

Much of my current thinking depends on what I know as the power of sacrament and ritual to work their mystery and power on the human heart and mind. This is a risky statement for those of us whose minds go immediately from “sacrament and ritual” to church and religion, in a dismissive kind of way. But that’s not what I’m suggesting. Is it possible, or might it be possible, that we can design eco-ritual to celebrate the gift of letting go? Not only the sacrifice of our sense of human privilege and entitlement, but the utter joy and freedom that comes from un-encumbering ourselves of our misconception that humans are the ultimate species?

Eco-Spirituality ~ An Elemental Perspective

My thanks always to my generous friend Rex Nelson who just gets better and better with his camera. His generosity and kindness have never faltered.

I know that the majority of the people who read this blog and respond to my work are among the many who have left churches and won’t return, or have never attended churches and have no plans to do so. Still, I want to share with people of churches and people not, some of the significant explorations being accomplished out of my former seminary, The Church Divinity School of the Pacific, in Berkeley, California.

In my posts I continue to challenge the institution of the Church and it’s insistence on human privilege and entitlement. I continue to charge that the restoration and healing of the ecosystems of the planet cannot be accomplished unless and until we humans release our sense of primacy and rejoin (appropriately) the natural world. Still I think there are little pockets of hope giving new voice.

Under the ecological vision and leadership of Dr. Marion Grau, Associate Professor of Theology, the concept of Elemental Theology (Earth, Water, Wind, and Fire) is beginning to take root and bloom. A DVD entitled Elemental Theology has just been released as part of a teaching series produced by The Center For Anglican Learning & Leadership; it’s a compilation of half a dozen voices whose deep commitment to the healing of our planet is growing. From the sacred elements of water, the fruits of the earth, light, and all life forms come the stories we’ve been hungering for, a shared narrative from an ecological perspective which challenges faith communities to rethink such biblical concepts as dominion and rule, human privilege and entitlement, and the meaning of justice.

It was a rare occasion that invited my own participation in this teaching series, and a privilege. My hope is to include this work in two ways: first, I have posted my contribution in two parts on the sidebar of the website. I am including both parts in this new post as well.

Second, I am asking that you take a look at the film Elemental Theology in its entirety, and consider its purchase.

What if . . . it’s a question I raise in my part of the DVD . . . what if faith communities could begin to re-imagine the perspective from which they understand the interrelationships of all life forms? I think of the sheer numbers of hands and hearts and minds – never mind political influence – that could address the ecological devastation of our times. I think of the deep spiritual foundation – not doctrinal – that carries the potential for real healing.

Then, of course, the reality sets in – the propensity of religious organizations to focus their resources on those things which prop them up. The cynicism is warranted, no doubt, but I’m not sure it’s helpful. Quite the opposite if it leads to numbness and paralysis as is so often my experience.

I’m asking that you take a look at this DVD, if not in its entirety, then my contribution to it. I’d like to read your thoughts and comments in the the space provided. I really don’t understand how it is that conversational threads are strong on some blogging sites, and not so on others. As there is no more critical conversation that’s needed at this particular moment, I am asking for your help.

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