I’m beginning to understand two things: one, what I call the space between is the ground for holy exchange, not only between humans and the biotic world, but also between and among humans; and two, that the space between is hard to come by, even harder to hold.
When I was in the process of writing The Space Church & Not-Church, my editor continued to ask me, “what do people of churches and people not of churches bring to the space between?” I continued to respond that it wasn’t about what people dragged into the space, it was what they were able to release for the sake of deep listening, patience, trust, and respect, as well as a sure and certain knowing of the sacredness of creation.
I have a story to share about this space between sacred experience, although it would be another decade before I understood what this was really about. In 1999 or 2000, a Houston, Texas community of former teenage gang members, graffiti artists, drug dealers, under the auspices of a non-profit called Youth Advocates, came together several times each week to translate their rage, defiance, and often hopelessness into the art of breakdancing. They were an awesome group – funny, smart, compassionate, with older kids mentoring younger ones.
This group of about twenty was invited to the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles to accompany the LA teenagers on a fifty mile walk with the former bishop. We’d walk eight or ten miles, then spend the night on the hard floors of some or other church. Each evening we’d do some or other form of Evening Prayer, and the bishop would offer a short homily. That was the pattern.
One evening, the bishop talked of the parable of the mustard seed, while the graffiti artists painted what they were hearing on an eight by four sheet of plywood. Here’s the backstory. That afternoon, my husband Jim and I, along with a couple other adults, had accompanied these three young men to an art store, where they examined various paint nozzles and colors, three heads so close in as to be touching, yes to this one, no to that one, how about this and this in combination?
If we were astonished by the collaborative nature of the adventure then, we were transported by the experience of the evening.
It was a balmy Los Angeles evening, breezy, not muggy, and we gathered in the courtyard. One of the host teens read the story of the mustard seed, and as the bishop spoke, the graffiti artists painted. The leadership was seamless, reminding me of a wise man who once told me (about collaborative leadership) the Spirit dances first on one, then another, then another. The three artists, again so close in they seemed as one body, communicated softly to one another as the bishop spoke, not always with words when words weren’t required. They laid down paint in layer after layer, white hot in the middle, to depict the explosion of the mustard seed itself.
During the years that followed, people looking at this remarkable painting, remembered the Big Bang, the waters of birth, the waters of baptism; they spoke of community, the eye of God. The image of the mustard seed evoked seemingly infinite responses, all of them resounding with the sacredness of the image itself, and to the creative sacred experience that created it.
I think this was my first experience of what it meant to move into the space between. I wouldn’t have called it that yet, because I didn’t understand it. But as I continue to speak and write about the space between as a path to the healing of the biotic community, I offer these as real life practical application of what it means to live there, with others, in the moment, with trust and respect, with a commitment to listen deeply to the creative gifts of the Other, and to honor both process and participants.
I am coming into the understanding – it’s been an evolving process – that the space between is where we will be able to acknowledge the harm we’ve accomplished, between and among humans, and between human and non-human life forms. I believe this is where healing begins, in the space between.
Last night I posted on my personal Facebook page and my Restoring the Waters Facebook page, a link to a TED talk entitled “There are No Mistakes on the Bandstand”. I hope you watch it. But if you don’t, and you stick with this post, I’ll just tell you about it, using improvisational jazz as the vehicle for a space between experience.
Stefon Harris, the band’s leader, begins with this explanation, “Okay, I have no idea what we’re going to play. I have no idea what it is until it happens. So, I didn’t realize there was going to be a little music before, so I think I’mm going to start with what I just heard.” Picture a xylophone with mallets, bass, drums, and a piano. Stefon lays down the pattern on the xylophone and repeats it. At fifty eight seconds, the drummer picks up his drumstick, the bassist’s fingers begin to dance with the strings of his instrument, and the man on the keyboard begins to offer the voice of his own instrument. Six minutes in, and the the band members have created something remarkable.
Stefon continues with his philosophy of “mistakes”. There are none, basically. The only mistake, he says, is “if I am not aware, each individual musician not aware and accepting enough of his fellow band member to incorporate the idea”, in other words if the musicians can’t allow for creativity.
Referring to jazz improv as sacred blessing, Stefon refers to the science of listening, of the value of patience, of the willingness to pull from something going on around him, and thus inspiring others to pull from him.
This is as clear a space between experience as I can imagine. It requires trust, respect, a willingness to embrace life in the moment.
The other day I heard an aspiring clergy person argue that mainline progressive churches are doing our earth stewardship just fine, that it’s the evangelical conservative churches who are the stumbling blocks to the care of the earth.
This budding young church leader is not alone. Among people in progressive churches I hear often that the plight of the earth is directly related to an evangelical theology or conservative theology which posits the return of Jesus as so immediate as to be on the calendar; these are people so swept up with gleeful anticipation at the world’s end that they can find no earthly reason to care for non-human life forms; how we actually leave the state of the earth herself of no concern whatsoever. So we progressives are off the hook, right? Really, how can we begin to make a dent in the problem up and against such conservative thinking?
First, the assumption is false, as witnessed by the Evangelical Environmental Network charter On the Care of Creation. Second, progressive mainline churches aren’t making much of an impact regardless of a certain measurable pridefulness. After all, we recycle; we include a prayer for the earth even as we pray for the church and the nations; we bless our animals; we add an extra prayer for Earth Day.
All glibness aside – and with a nod to GreenFaith ~ Interfaith Partners for the Environment, the major theology that comes closest to what follows below is the Hindu understanding of Dharma as it relates to a web of life understanding. But, digression aside, and returning to the illusory distinctions between mainline progressive churches and evangelical churches with regard to their environmental theologies, I am asking just one question.
Is there no one who understands that the differences in our theology are far outweighed by the similarities of our common anthropology which – even in the face of all the science – continue to posit humans at the center of planetary life and concern? I don’t intend this as a rhetorical question. It’s our common anthropology, not our differing theologies, that stands as obstacle to doing the reconciling and healing work of the earth community – which, as the earth sciences has been telling us for decades, includes humans within its intricate, interconnected, and interdependent web.
This anthropocentrism is not only characteristic of people in churches but equally so of those not who have no church relationship. We’re not listening to the science. The universe is in fact not unfolding according to an anthropocentric anthropology, although most humans insist that it is. We also insist that we could fix the earth’s desolation with our technologies, if only we would.
The truth is, we can’t fix any of it from an anthropocentric perspective, that very perspective that insists we can fix anything. Only when we are willing to release our human sense of privilege and entitlement, only when we can relocate ourselves within the earth community, according to evolutionary reality, can we hope to be about the business of healing and reconciliation.
This holds true as well between human and human. As long as we insist on our anthropocentric place in the universe, a place of human privilege and entitlement, not only do we continue to live under the illusion that humans are more important than all other life forms, and that the world exists for our sakes, but we understand and act out of the illusion that some humans are more important than other humans. We are deluded. Witness Occupy Wall Street.
Two things of particular significance pop out with the bishops’ letter, and I am sure I will find more. One, the Bishops of the Episcopal Church have issued a call to repentance for the way in which the human species has engaged the earth community of which it is a part. To recognize that we cannot do anything by way of healing without first repenting of the damage we have done is the right order of things. It’s a strong beginning.
Yet my immediate response has been almost knee-jerk. Who in the church (or anywhere else) has not only embraced this challenge of repentance but has assumed the role of “liturgist for the earth”. The bishops cite the content of an Ash Wednesday ritual, but a one time per year ritual of confession around so much destructive human behavior means little. Who in any church anywhere, has been charged with the joyous, challenging, and sorrowful task of: one) designing such a ritual of repentance; and two) helping us understand that this is no once a year Ash Wednesday miniscule part of the invitation to a holy season of Lent, but that such ritual needs to be a common – even daily (hourly) – sacramental experience?
It’s a rhetorical question, of course.
There is only one appropriate morning prayer – a petition for justice – and earth justice is no separate thing, but the ground of all social justice. The starting point, then, for morning prayer – at least at this time in our history – is repentance. That which we have harmed of the eco-systems of our planet, we have harmed of ourselves. There is no separation.
There is no end to human poverty which is not grounded in earth justice. There is no end to human illness and disease which is not grounded in earth justice. There is no end to human misery which is not grounded in earth justice. There is no end to racial violence, sexual violence, and gender orientation violence (just a start on that list) which is not grounded in earth justice.
It makes me crazy (truly) that among the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, environmental concerns show up at number seven – second to last – as though earth justice were somehow a separate entity. It is not.
The second “thing of great import” in the Bishops’ letter is the glimmer – glimmer only (maybe I’ll call it a nano-glimmer) of a recognition that we cannot separate ourselves as humans from the rest of the created order.
BUT . . . the letter continues, “The creation story itself presents the interdependence of all God’s creatures in their wonderful diversity and fragility.”
Wait. What just happened? If, indeed, the creation story presents itself in this way of interdependence, the bishops apparently have forgotten to include the humans in the embrace of “God’s creatures.” It’s that pesky word “their”. Have we forgotten? With the words “their wonderful diversity and fragility, the glimmer once again recedes. It’s not theirs, it’s ours. Our collective – human and non-human – wonderful diversity and fragility.
And the Lord said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. . . 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.’
This, I believe, is the Genesis story of creation that has formed the attitudes and behaviors of humans, not the cleaned up version as offered in the bishops’ letter.
Still, good for the bishops, for the most part. But there are questions. Did they increase their carbon footprint for this trip? Waste resources? Live richly? My guess (guess only) would be yes. The eco-theology is improving. The question for the rest of us is: how do we call all of us into accountability.
I am going to send you back to the foundational work of this blogging site, the incongruity of human privilege and entitlement, just to remind all of us, that we cannot get to the healing part until we actually repent – not just talk about it – of the anthropocentrism. I am also going to point us all in the direction of what it means – for the sake of the healing of the earth community – to engage it from the space between . . .
Healing emerges from the space between, and to enter it is to release our insistence on human privilege and entitlement. From the space between . . . we can begin to exercise (in a Boot Camp kind of way, where the drills have everything to do with the gifts of the right brain) the power of story, art, and ritual all pointing toward the transformation of the human heart. From the space between . . . and nowhere else – will we be able to reconfigure our moral compass, understanding that our very spiritual – and therefore ethical – formation derives from the earth community itself, of which we are an integral and essential part.
Next blog, look for an account of Mardi Tindal and the United Church of Canada, as that church struggles with their participation in the healing of Creation. Mardi is the Moderator of the Canadian Church, and traveled by train (The Spirit Express) across the country, to engage people in town hall meetings about their responses to the issues of climate and ocean train. I am particularly impressed by the specific ways the towns and cities along the route worked so creatively to offset the carbon footprint of the train itself.
This powerful letter is cause for celebration. I have posted it here in its entirety, without comment. In a separate post, I am offering a brief reflection and assigning that to several categories. As you know – at least those of you who are following my commitment of discovery of “what it means to inhabit the space between . . . my commitment is to find language and design ritual which can express all that follows, in a way that all of us – those in churches and those not – can disentangle the stark division between sacred and secular, for the sake of the first of all calls – to earth justice, namely the healing of our lives ( we don’t yet understand in a sacramental way that the healing of human lives has everything to do with the healing of the earth community . . . that human and earth are one and the same). This letter is cause for great hope. In my reflection that I will post here and elsewhere on this website, please know I am not poking holes in this. This is cause for deep hope, and my deepest desire is to make this accessible to all of us who do not and may not engage in the earth’s healing through such a particularly religious lens.
A Pastoral Teaching from the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church ~ Quito, Ecuador September 2011
We, your bishops, believe these words of Jeremiah describe these times and call us to repentance as we face the unfolding environmental crisis of the earth: How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away, and because people said, “He is blind to our ways.” (Jeremiah 12:4)
The mounting urgency of our environmental crisis challenges us at this time to confess “our self-indulgent appetites and ways,” “our waste and pollution of God’s creation,” and “our lack of concern for those who come after us” (Ash Wednesday Liturgy, Book of Common Prayer, p. 268). It also challenges us to amend our lives and to work for environmental justice and for more environmentally sustainable practices.
Christians cannot be indifferent to global warming, pollution, natural resource depletion, species extinctions, and habitat destruction, all of which threaten life on our planet. Because so many of these threats are driven by greed, we must also actively seek to create more compassionate and sustainable economies that support the well-being of all God’s creation.
We are especially called to pay heed to the suffering of the earth.The Anglican Communion Environmental Network calls to mind the dire consequences our environment faces: “We know that . . . we are now demanding more than [the earth] is able to provide. Science confirms what we already know: our human footprint is changing the face of the earth and because we come from the earth, it is changing us too. We are engaged in the process of destroying our very being. If we cannot live in harmony with the earth, we will not live in harmony with one another.”
This is the appointed time for all God’s children to work for the common goal of renewing the earth as a hospitable abode for the flourishing of all life. We are called to speak and act on behalf of God’s good creation.
Looking back to the creation accounts in Genesis, we see God’s creation was “very good,” providing all that humans would need for abundant, peaceful life. In creating the world God’s loving concern extended to the whole of it, not just to humans. And the scope of God’s redemptive love in Christ is equally broad: the Word became incarnate in Christ not just for our sake, but for the salvation of the whole world. In the Book of Revelation we read that God will restore the goodness and completeness of creation in the “new Jerusalem.” Within this new city, God renews and redeems the natural world rather than obliterating it. We now live in that time between God’s creation of this good world and its final redemption: “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for . . . the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-3).
Affirming the biblical witness to God’s abiding and all-encompassing love for creation, we recognize that we cannot separate ourselves as humans from the rest of the created order. The creation story itself presents the interdependence of all God’s creatures in their wonderful diversity and fragility, and in their need of protection from dangers of many kinds. This is why the Church prays regularly for the peace of the whole world, for seasonable weather and an abundance of the fruits of the earth, for a just sharing of resources, and for the safety of all who suffer. This includes our partner creatures: animals, birds, and fish who are being killed or made sick by the long-term effects of deforestation, oil spills, and a host of other ways in which we intentionally and unintentionally destroy or poison their habitat.
One of the most dangerous and daunting challenges we face is global climate change. This is, at least in part, a direct result of our burning of fossil fuels. Such human activities could raise worldwide average temperatures by three to eleven degrees Fahrenheit in this century. Rising average temperatures are already wreaking environmental havoc, and, if unchecked, portend devastating consequences for every aspect of life on earth.
The Church has always had as one of its priorities a concern for the poor and the suffering. Therefore, we need not agree on the fundamental causes of human devastation of the environment, or on what standard of living will allow sustainable development, or on the roots of poverty in any particular culture, in order to work to minimize the impact of climate change. It is the poor and the disadvantaged who suffer most from callous environmental irresponsibility. Poverty is both a local and a global reality. A healthy economy depends absolutely on a healthy environment.
The wealthier nations whose industries have exploited the environment, and who are now calling for developing nations to reduce their impact on the environment, seem to have forgotten that those who consume most of the world’s resources also have contributed the most pollution to the world’s rivers and oceans, have stripped the world’s forests of healing trees, have destroyed both numerous species and their habitats, and have added the most poison to the earth’s atmosphere. We cannot avoid the conclusion that our irresponsible industrial production and consumption-driven economy lie at the heart of the current environmental crisis.
Privileged Christians in our present global context need to move from a culture of consumerism to a culture of conservation and sharing. The challenge is to examine one’s own participation in ecologically destructive habits. Our churches must become places where we have honest debates about, and are encouraged to live into, more sustainable ways of living. God calls us to die to old ways of thinking and living and be raised to new life with renewed hearts and minds.
Although many issues divide us as people of faith, unprecedented ecumenical and interfaith cooperation is engaging the concern to protect our planet. And yet, efforts to stop environmental degradation must not be simply imposed from above. Those most affected must have a hand in shaping decisions. For example, we welcome efforts in the United States to involve Native American tribal leaders and to empower local community organizations to address environmental issues. Similar strategies need to be employed in myriad communities in various locales.
Our current environmental challenges call us to ongoing forms of repentance: we must turn ourselves around, and come to think, feel, and act in new ways. Ancient wisdom and spiritual disciplines from our faith offer deep resources to help address this environmental crisis. Time-honored practices of fasting, Sabbath-keeping, and Christ-centered mindfulness bear particular promise for our time.
Fasting disciplines and heals our wayward desires and appetites, calling us to balance our individual needs with God’s will for the whole world. In fasting we recognize that human hungers require more than filling the belly. In God alone are our desires finally fulfilled. Commended in the Book of Common Prayer, fasting is grounded in the practices of Israel, taught by Jesus, and sustained in Christian tradition. The ecological crisis extends and deepens the significance of such fasting as a form of self-denial: those who consume more than their fair share must learn to exercise self-restraint so that the whole community of creation might be sustained.
Sabbath-keeping is rooted in the Book of Genesis, where the seventh day is the day in which God, humans, and the rest of creation are in right relationship. In our broken world, keeping the Sabbath is a way of remembering and anticipating that world for which God created us. Sabbath requires rest, that we might remember our rightful place as God’s creatures in relationship with every other creature of God. Such rest implicitly requires humans to live lightly on the face of the earth, neither to expend energy nor to consume it, not to work for gain alone, but to savor the grace and givenness of creation.
In assuming with new vigor our teaching office, we, your bishops, commit ourselves to a renewal of these spiritual practices in our own lives, and invite you to join us in this commitment for the good of our souls and the life of the world. Moreover, in order to honor the goodness and sacredness of God’s creation, we, as brothers and sisters in Christ, commit ourselves and urge every Episcopalian:
To acknowledge the urgency of the planetary crisis in which we find ourselves, and to repent of any and all acts of greed, overconsumption, and waste that have contributed to it;
To lift up prayers in personal and public worship for environmental justice, for sustainable development, and for help in restoring right relations both among humankind and between humankind and the rest of creation;
To advocate for a “fair, ambitious, and binding” climate treaty, and to work toward climate justice through reducing our own carbon footprint and advocating for those most negatively affected by climate change.
May God give us the grace to heed the warnings of Jeremiah and to accept the gracious invitation of the incarnate Word to live, in, with, and through him, a life of grace for the whole world, that thereby all the earth may be restored and humanity filled with hope. Rejoicing in your works, O Lord, send us forth with your Spirit to renew the face of the earth, that the world may once again be filled with your good things: the trees watered abundantly, springs rushing between the hills in verdant valleys, all the earth made fruitful, your manifold creatures, birds, beasts, and humans, all quenching their thirst and receiving their nourishment from you once again in due season (Psalm 104).
Meaning emerges from an experience, over time and in many layers. It’s why our stories are so important. We go back to them again and again, deepening the meaning and import. The story that follows is one whose significance continues to evolve. Although the predominant relationship in this story is human to human, by touching on each of the elements of a biocentric morality—a sense of place, attentiveness, gratitude, compassion and service—we can get a sense of what the moral shift from anthropocentric to biocentric might look like.
Members of a small congregation in Rochester, New York, had been trying for months to articulate what they thought would be an appropriate relationship between their church and the neighborhood in which it sat. Simply by the tenor of their question, it was clear that the people of this congregation thought of themselves as distinct from their neighborhood. Questions and ideas circulated; various ministries were proposed and considered, some discarded immediately, others hovering for a while longer.
One father of two teenagers surprised everyone with the odd notion that they were asking the question in the wrong way. It wasn’t What relationship do we want with the neighborhood? but rather, We’ve been in this place for a hundred years. We are the neighborhood, so how do we put that into practice? People were truly surprised by the idea. They had never thought of it like that. It’s the same question that is knocking at our anthropocentrism—not, How might we be in relationship with the earth community? but rather, We are the earth community, so how do we put that into practice?
To the Rochester congregation came an idea so outside the bounds of their experience that the group seemed to suck in its collective breath and then exhale it all of a piece. The idea was this: Beginning with the Last Sunday of Epiphany and continuing through the Sundays of Lent, at the regular worship time, the people would meet at the church for just a song and a prayer, then fan out into the neighborhood to pick up trash. The objections tumbled over each other in their haste to be voiced: “We don’t have to do it during church, we can do it afterwards—we could call it neighborhood outreach.” “What if we find things like discarded needles or condoms?” “What if people are offended?” “What about insurance?” Underneath all this anxiety floated some inarticulate knowing that this was actually going to happen; it was inevitable.
In the frantic and anxious days that followed, the plan was adapted in this way: One group would gather in the chapel to sing and pray for the project and the neighborhood; another would prepare a meal; a third, armed with orange vests, garbage cans, and trash-picking implements, would go out and clean up the neighborhood street by street, block by block. The process would be one of self-selection.
The first Sunday, as this bold congregation gathered at the church door (they didn’t even go in), they were greeted by one of the ministers with the words, “Welcome to our new adventure.” A few chose to remain inside and pray. Others assigned themselves to the lunch crew. But the trash collectors outnumbered them all; vested, partnered and armed with lists of “do not touch” items, they set out like voyagers to a new land.
An hour and a half later, seventeen black garbage bags filled with refuse were deposited at the back door of the church, and the intrepid trash gatherers joined the other groups for a welcome pot of beef barley soup, olives, and cheese. One loaf and one cup of wine made its way around the room, with each person offering to the next—children, adults, elders—one sacramental loaf, one community.
They offered their reflections during that meal and the meals to come, sharing powerful experiences of worship, awe, mystery, and a connectedness to God and to one another that was astonishing. Very simply, they were asking, What is this trash telling us? What stories are we learning about the frustrations, the indifference, the invisibility—church and not-church both? A discarded needle screams a story, maybe of longing and disillusion, rage and powerlessness. Fast food cartons and wrappers tell the story of a kind of poverty that knows it is far cheaper and more filling to swing through Burger King than it is to go to Wegman’s Market. A bag of potato chips costs less than a bag of carrots. Jumbo colas are cheaper than juice.
The members of this small Rochester congregation, in partnership with their neighbors, happened one time upon signs of a broken love in the form of a stash of snow-encrusted photographs, each one torn or blackened by a marker. Was it anger that ripped into the images of intimate moments? Was it grief? Indifference? They were young, these two in the photograph, and looked familiar, as though you’d seen them on the street, holding hands, or walking the soft drink aisle of Tops Market, arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders. Not young only, they looked defiant in these pictures, as though they were challenging the world to keep its distance. Might their expressions have softened had they been held within the embrace of church and not-church? The people of the Rochester congregation began to understand picking up trash as a sacramental act.
The stories of the people of a neighborhood are carried in what they discard, and they are sacred stories. The very fact that trash is tossed in the street, tossed in the yards, the sidewalks, the canal; the fact that there are “do not touch” items on the list (needles and glass); the fact that beer cans, McDonald’s wrappers, and Styrofoam are strewn with abandon—all of it tells the story of we the people, a people disconnected from the earth and the water and the symphony of our own bodies, disconnected from beauty and a holy imagination. Through the stories contained in the trash, the people of this congregation found new respect and regard for the citizens of their own neighborhood, which, they now knew, included themselves. Through these stories, they engaged in an unfamiliar process of formation, finding themselves transformed by their new appreciation of a people’s resilience, hope, and strength.
“I think the earth was pleased,” one man said. People smiled their agreement.
By the second or third week, congregants were joined for the meal by not-church residents of the neighborhood. One of them, a woman whose name was Elizabeth, had brought a basket of cookies. “I never thought I’d see the day that I’d set foot into a church,” she told the woman sitting next to her. “My parents never took us to church.”
The bags of trash numbered over two hundred by the time the sixth Sunday had drawn to a close. The people of the church and the people of the neighborhood had become of one purpose: “to clean things up around here, and show that we care.” Relationships were forged in the intersection of church and not-church. This is how it happens.