Loving God’s Creation Nurtures Our Spirit

Presbyterians Today February 20, 2019


What Presbyterians Believe about nature and creation

By Susan DeGeorge | Presbyterians Today
Taking a walk through the forest

Count the stars. Open your eyes and see the well of water. Take a stone and use it as a pillow.

During my first year as a new pastor, I decided I would write a curriculum for our children that would focus on common outdoor experiences that they and the main characters in the book of Genesis had. The first lesson focused on God’s covenant with Abraham in which he was told to look at the sky and count the stars to get an idea of the number of his descendants. The next centered on Hagar and what it was like to be hot and thirsty and to discover a water source to quench your longing. The third week focused on Jacob’s falling asleep outdoors with a stone as a pillow. Week four’s curriculum was never written because by then I had discovered that the children in my suburban congregation had never counted stars on a dark night, quenched their thirst in a cool stream or slept out under the sky.

Over the years since then, I’ve learned that it wasn’t just those children in my first church who didn’t have a regular connection with God’s creation. Many of us are oblivious to or alienated from the earth around us. And yet, Presbyterians come from a tradition that calls us to know, honor, rejoice in and care for God’s creation. Our Scripture — from Genesis to Revelation — invites us to be in relationship with trees that clap their hands, as Isaiah proclaims; water that quenches thirst, cleanses, teaches about justice and quiets our anxiety; and animals that serve as helpers, partners and teachers. Our belief is centered on the Word becoming flesh — physical matter.

John Calvin, one of the forefathers of the Reformed tradition, viewed nature as an important source of knowledge of God, awakening us to God’s presence in our daily lives and, thus, is worthy of our care. For decades now, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has called us to be involved in and care for creation. Most recently, the 223rd General Assembly (2018) asked us to “raise a prophetic voice regarding the urgency of healing the climate of the earth, our home and God’s gift for the future of all life, human and nonhuman.”

But it’s hard to care for what you don’t know or have a relationship with. So, if we are to live what it is we say we believe as Presbyterians, our challenge is twofold. First, we must develop new, strong relationships with the rest of creation by providing occasions to immerse ourselves in the beauty and the mystery of creation in our congregational worship and in our daily lives. We might learn where the water in our baptism services and the bread and juice shared during the Lord’s Supper come from, and how the earth or rivers from which they were gathered connect to us and have been treated by us. We might provide occasions for those in our worshiping communities to take off their shoes and stand on the earth, literally as well as figuratively, recognizing the holiness of the ground on which we stand. We might gather on a dark night and look up at the stars, counting them and remembering God’s promise to Abraham and all his descendants.

Then, having strengthened our connections with creation, we must tend to those relationships through our daily choices — in what we consume, how we get from place to place, and how we treat the beings around us, along with the water, soil and air. Only then will we begin to embody Mark’s Gospel commission to go into all the world and proclaim the good news to all creation.

Susan DeGeorge is a minister, stated clerk of Hudson River Presbytery and professor of religious studies (with a specialization in religion and the environment) at Pace University in New York.

Eco-Reformation: A Review

Eco-Reformation

Review

Eco-Reformation: Grace and Hope for a Planet in Peril is offered on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in the hope of helping to create a paradigm shift for change similar to the one that Martin Luther started with his ninety-five theses, one that this time would center on ecological justice.  The sixteen essays in this volume are written by leading English-speaking Lutheran scholars and offer a wide variety of perspectives and analysis.  Among the disciplines represented in the collection are biblical studies, systematic theology, history, ethics, and pastoral studies.

The concept that holds the wide range of essays together is the need to reform our relationship with God’s creation. This is in keeping with the declaration by the Lutheran World Federation [LWF] that the year 2017 would commemorate the Reformation with three themes, “Salvation —Not for Sale; Human Beings—Not For Sale; Creation— Not for Sale.”   Perhaps, somewhat ironically, but as a sign of the ecumenical shift that has happened since the sixteenth century, the new eco-Reformation voice that calls to Christians “today like that of the 1517 Luther” is Pope Francis, whose environmental ideas are referred to explicitly in seven of the essays as well as the foreword and preface (xii). His encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home is referenced in this volume more than the LWF themes and is, in many ways, implicitly the linchpin of the book. The encyclical’s call for all people to “dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet” and its critique of industrial capitalism, modernity, climate change, and care for creation weave their way through and connect the various discrete essays in Eco-Reformation.

As in any collection of this kind, the pieces vary in strength and depth of analysis, though all of them have something to offer readers. Individual essays will have strong appeal to different audiences. Pastors and other worship leaders will find much to consider in Lisa Dahill’s challenge to “rewild” the rituals of baptism and the Eucharist, as well as in James Vigen’s suggestion of using the seasons of Advent and Lent as times both to take stock of the suffering and injustice on our earth, and to focus on bodily health by understanding that climate change “is the largest public health crisis we have ever faced as a species, as a planet” (238). Those interested in ethics will appreciate Larry Rasmussen’s push to move beyond an anthropocentric mindset and Cynthia Moe-Lobeda’s appeal to respond to the structural sin revealed in both racism and climate change.  University administrators and others involved in planning a liberal arts curriculum will be intrigued by Ernest Simmons’s call to rethink all education as an “ecologically entangled education” that prepares students for planetary citizenship (213). Although directed toward a Lutheran audience, David Rhoads’s “A Theology of Creation” will call all systematic theologians and professors of religion to rethink an Eco-Reformation that is “as mind-bending a challenge in perception as the first Reformation was for people of its time” (4). Community organizers and other eco-justice workers will find Victor Thasiah’s “Religion, Forestry, and Democracy in Rwanda after Genocide” an excellent illustration of the ways in which specific environmental actions—in this case a reforestation program—can also help bring about larger political changes.

Perhaps the most broad-based and widely appealing essay in the collection is Norman Habel’s “Ninety-Five Eco-Theses: A Call for Churches to Care for Earth.” This is a wonderful critique of twenty-first-century Christianity as it finds itself awakening to the “cries of our wounded planet” (273).  Dividing his theses into ten key principles—of continuing reformation, cosmic ecology, earth as sanctuary, nature as revelation, eco-hermeneutics, restorative justice, being earth beings, eco-mission, deus crucifixus, and eco-reformation mandate—Habel sketches out for us what he thinks an eco-reformed faith might look like in our time.  In doing so, he puts an unspoken challenge before all readers who care about eco-Reformation to create similar “ninety-five eco-theses” statement for themselves so that each can then declare: “Here I stand.  I can do no other.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Susan G. De George is professor of philosophy and religious studies at Pace University.

Date of Review: 

October 13, 2017

http://readingreligion.org/books/eco-reformation

 

Hearing the Bird

I spent some time this week up at the Garrison Institute as part of my continuing education work with GreenFaith. The program has given me a chance to begin to get to know about two dozen other GreenFaith Fellows who are working in a whole slew of different ways on issues connected with faith and the environment. It’s taken us on field trips of various kinds—to training programs and nature preserves and other types of settings connected with the environment.   There have also been summaries of what various world religions say about our relationship with the environment, tools to work with congregations on climate related issues and more.

Most of the GreenFaith Fellows already have a very deep love of nature before they begin the program. Mine developed, I think, because of my grandmother. She, my mother, and I lived in an apartment when I was young. Along with the apartment came an optional small garden patch that was near woods where we could walk and hike. My mother would go off to work to support us, leaving my grandmother to watch me. Many late mornings, no matter what the season, my grandmother would often make the two of us sandwiches. We’d tie them in a kerchief, stick the kerchief on a stick, and she, our dog, and I would head out for an afternoon in the woods.

Goody aqueduct

We’d walk for a while and then stop near something that interested one or the other of us. We’d stand or stoop and spend time looking at the way in which the nearby brook was wearing away a rock or the insects were eating through a dead log. We’d listen to their calls to discover what birds were in an area or pay careful attention to the wild flowers growing in a field through which we were passing. Most of these noticings and discoveries were done in silence. Partway through each day’s walk, we’d find a place to sit down and untie our kerchief. As we shared our lunch and our recent observations, my grandmother would find ways to tie what we’d seen to her belief that each and every one of the beings we were seeing was part of God’s creation and so deserved to be treated well.   Though I was unaware of it at the time, I think that those days gave me the gift of finding and loving the Spirit so strongly present in all beings.

Each time I’m at a GreenFaith-type gathering, an image and a quotation run through my mind. I always recall the image of my grandmother, often in her black hiking shorts and sleeveless blouse, bent over a plant or insect, her face filled with pure joy. And I also think of a quote from Nikos Kazantzakis’s Report to Greco, in which “One divine spring day the windows (of the classroom) were open. A tangerine tree was in bloom across the street, and its perfume entered the classroom. Each of our minds had turned into a blossoming tangerine tree; we could not bear to hear anything more about acute and circumflex accents. A bird came just then, perched on the plane tree in the schoolyard and began to sing. At that point a pale redheaded student who had arrived that year from his village, Nikolios by name, was unable to control himself. He raised his finger. “Be quiet, sir,” he cried. “Be quiet, and let us hear the bird.” First and foremost, before we talk about the ways in which the divine and the earthly are connected in sacred texts or tools for getting congregations to be concerned about greenhouse emissions or better environmental choices, we need to go outside, where all the preaching and lecturing and strategizing stops and we can sit, stand, or stoop in silence to hear the bird sing, and through such singing, come to know the divine reflected in the world around us and in each of our lives.

 

 

Books Read in 2014

  1. Willow Wilson’s Alif The Unseen
  2. Art Spiegelman’s Maus 1
  3. Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Through the Evil Days
  4. Al Gore’s The Future
  5. Peter Steinke’s A Door Set Open
  6. Mary Oliver’s Dog Song
  7. Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an
  8. Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal
  9. Roger Nicholson’s Temporary Shepherds
  10. Mary Piper’s The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in our Capsized Culture
  11. Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep
  12. Anne Lamott’s Stitches
  13. Patricia Cornwell’s Dust
  14. Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages: The life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
  15. Chris Pye’s Wood Carving: Projects and Techniques
  16. Charles Biederman’s The Beginner’s Handbook of Woodcarving
  17. Katherine Howe’s The House of Velvet and Glass
  18. Marie Dennis’ St. Francis and the Foolishness of God
  19. David Janzen’s Fire, Salt, and Peace: Intentional Christian Communities Alive in North America
  20. J. Tangerman’s Whitling and Woodcarving
  21. Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni
  22. Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Breadcrumbs
  23. Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction
  24. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit
  25. Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath
  26. Hans Kung’s Can We Save the Catholic Church?
  27. Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods
  28. Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings
  29. Alexia Salvatierra’s Faith-Rooted Organizing
  30. John Kotter’s Our Iceberg is Melting
  31. Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book
  32. Alexandra Horowitz’ On Looking
  33. Bill McKibben’s Oil and Honey
  34. Richard Louv’s The Nature Principle
  35. Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing
  36. Jo Walton’s What Makes this Book so Great?
  37. Nick Hand’s Conversations on the Hudson
  38. Rosamund Zander’s The Art of Possibility
  39. David Haskell’s The Forest Unseen
  40. David Orr’s Earth in Mind
  41. Rob Hopkins’ The Power of Just Doing Stuff
  42. Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain
  43. J. Cherryh’s The Pride of Chanur
  44. Django Wexler’s The Forbidden Library
  45. Rumi and His Sufi Path of Love
  46. Nevada Barr’s Destroyer Angel
  47. Walter Bruggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance
  48. Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark
  49. Robert Wilson’s The Chronoliths
  50. Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook
  51. Andrew Zolli, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back
  52. Octavia Butler’s Kindred
  53. Kim Robinson’s The Wild Shore
  54. Louise Penny’s Still Life
  55. Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace
  56. Elizabeth Warren’s A Fightng Chance
  57. Louise Penny’s The Cruelest Month
  58. Gail Caldwell’s New Life, No Instructions
  59. Thom Rainer’s Autopsy of a Deceased Church
  60. Katty Kay’s The Confidence Code
  61. Deborah Harkness’ The Book of Life
  62. Suzanne Clothier’s Bones Would Rain From Heaven
  63. Patricia McConnell’s The Other End of the Leash
  64. Lev Grossman’s Th Magician’s Land
  65. Louise Penny’s A Rule Against Murder
  66. J. Cherryh’s Chanur’s Venture
  67. Lewis Dartnell’s The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch
  68. Louise Penny’s The Brutal Telling
  69. Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead
  70. Jason Czarneski’s Everyday Environmentalism
  71. David Levithan’s Every Day
  72. Alan Dershowitz’ The Case for Israel
  73. IPMN’s Zionism Unsettled
  74. Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land
  75. Katherine Howe’s Conversion
  76. Stephen King’s Revival
  77. Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity
  78. Louise Penny’s The Long Way Home
  79. Lillian Daniel’s Tell it Like it Is
  80. Mark Wallace’s Green Christianity
  81. Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness
  82. Margaret Feinberg’s The Organic God
  83. Margaret Feinberg’s The Sacred Echo
  84. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God
  85. Cynthia Bourgeault’s Encountering the Wisdom Jesus
  86. John Grim’s Ecology and Religion
  87. Jeremy Ben-Ami’s A New Voice for Israel
  88. Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving
  89. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything
  90. Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth
  91. Jenny Jones’ All Roads Lead to Jerusalem
  92. Bill Evans’ Banjo for Dummies
  93. Pete Seeger’s How to Play the 5-String Banjo
  94. BK Loren’s Animal Mineral Radical
  95. Mary Oliver’s blue Horses
  96. Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow

Conversion

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I’ve just finished reading Katherine Howe’s new historical fiction novel, Conversion. Historical fiction is a genre I like a lot, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I’ve read both her The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and her The House of Velvet and Glass.   I bought an inexpensive used copy of Deliverance Dane in late 2013 and really enjoyed it. I was very happy to have bought the book because it was one I wanted to pass on to Kathy, who also likes historical fiction, so she could read it too. Early this spring I found a used copy of House of Velvet and read that as well. I again passed it to Kathy, saying it wasn’t as good as Deliverance Dane but it was still worth the read. In July Howe came out with Conversion. Not wanting to pay full price for a hardback of it, I put my name on the library list to read it. My copy came in last week. Now that I’ve finished it I can say I’m glad that I got a library copy of Conversion rather than spending the money for even an inexpensive used copy of it. I have no interest in passing the book on to anyone.

From my perspective, Conversion just doesn’t work well. The “interludes” back in the early 18th century didn’t grab me at all. I know Howe was trying to stick closely to the historical facts in those sections but none of the characters in those interludes seemed full people, much less worth caring about. The parallels (and lack thereof) between what’s happening to the senior girls and what was happening in 18th century Salem seemed trite. I know they were meant to make us rethink how an unexplained sickness among teenaged girls would be explained today (as people did with the 2012 LeRoy New York situation upon which the author admits she drew) but the whole exploration came across as superficial and trite. I hung in with the book until the end only because the 2012 storyline, set as it was in a Catholic girl’s school, reminded me some of my own high school experiences.

Living Cosmology

This weekend was the “Living Cosmology: Christian Responses to Journey of the Universe” conference up at Yale Divinity . The event was sponsored by the Forum on Religion and Ecology under the direction of Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, both of whose work I’ve come to appreciate a lot since I’ve been teaching the World Religions and the Natural Environment course. The event was very academic, being almost entirely university speakers presenting their papers on a range of cosmology topics from Cosmology, Law, and Erath Jurisprudence to Seeds, Soil, and Food.

The two panels that I enjoyed most were the first and third on Saturday morning. In the first panel, “The Influence of Teilhard de Chardin,” I got a chance to hear Ilia Delio (Georgetown) speak about the contrast between a Christianity that is based on the Adam myth of original sin and a Teilhardian, mystical Christianity that sees Christ as the cosmic person. I was delighted both to have the chance to hear her—I’d tried to sign up for her weeklong workshop on Teilhard last summer at Maryknoll, but I’d been closed out—but also to listen to her take on the relationship between technology and religion.

The other panel that I found very worthwhile was the one on “Views of the Divine.” There several speakers were intriguing. Mark Wallace (Swarthmore) started by speaking about the woodthrush as a “singing monk” (In line with Tibetan monks and singing bowls in its song) and then went on to point out how Christianity needs to get back to claiming to be an animistic religion. (His definition of animism was that all that exists lives and is holy) to respond to the crisis of heart that the world is currently having. Wallace was a strong speaker about whose courses and writing I’d like to learn more. Catherine Keller (Drew) went on to talk about reimaging the divine and spoke from her process panentheistic perspective saying that at the moment her favorite term for God is “the supreme entanglement.”   As in the other writing and teaching of hers that I’ve heard, her 12 minutes was dense (as in loaded with material to think about, not stupid) and gave me a lot to think about.

A lot of the speakers kept going back to the inadequacy of language for moving from a dualistic view of the world in which spirit and nature and separate rather than interwoven to a unified way of seeing creation. It’s an issue I’ve struggled with a lot, both in my teaching and in my leading of worship. I’ve also raised it several times in our Great Company and Green Sangha discussions so when it first came up at the Conference. I’d hoped there would be practical suggestions for ways to bridge the gap from one language to another. Instead what people said or implied was that someone would have to create a new dictionary to help us move into the non-dualistic world but no one wanted to make a start at that work.

Being at he conference made me feel as I often do when I attend workshops that are either connected with academia or with the parish—that I don’t quite fit in either world. As I listened to the academicians, I couldn’t help but wonder how most of what they were saying could ever be connected to the life of the average Christian. What, for example, would someone in the pews make of praying to God as “the divine entanglement?”  I left hoping for more speakers who could connect wood thrushes with spirituality in everyday wording and unify head and heart.

 

On The Town

On Thursday evening we were lucky enough to go into Manhattan to see our next door neighbor, Megan Fairchild, play the lead role of Ivy Smith in the play On the Town.

MeganasIvy

While it was hard not to hear echoes of Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra from the moment “New York, New York” was sung at the beginning, the play was great- updated (yes, it’s still set in the same time period, but a lot of the things that were glass shots in the movies wouldn’t work in a play), lively, well-acted and sung. Alysha Umphress as Hildy was SO funny and Megan’s dancing seemed so much above the types and quality of dancing that Vera-Ellen did in the 1949 film.

But the best part of the evening for me was where we were seated. We were seated in the center section of the front row in the last two seats to the left. That meant two things. When characters came on or off the stage to go into the audience, they walked right by us. It also meant that we could look into the orchestra pit throughout the performance and, since our seats were right in front of the part of the pit that had the flutes and clarinets, I happily watched them play for about as much of the performance as I watched the stage.   It made for a GREAT evening!

 

Gratitude

trees

Now that my World Religion and the Natural Environment have finished the weeks of academically exploring what each major religion teaches about our relationship with the world around us, we’re finally at the point that I like best in the course, the point where we begin to explore ways in which the various religious teachings can be applied in our daily lives. We look at visions of the earth whole and at peace and dream about how we might get there. We focus on ways in which religions can help build community and offer and teach compassion to all beings, and we explore ways in which we can show our thankfulness for all that surrounds us and that we experience.

This week we focused on gratitude. Students kept journals of their connections with the natural environment and added photos, poems, phrases, and drawings that captured the things for which they were grateful. They then took what they’d come up with and turned it into liturgy – prayers, invocations, meditations, etc—using a form that would be found in one of the world’s religions of their choice.

Each year, the answers to this assignment take my breath away. Several years ago the assignment was due during the week in which Hurricane Sandy destroyed several of the students’ homes, and yet—despite such destruction, there was still such outpourings of gratitude and such beautiful liturgies. This year, there was nothing as devastating as Sandy.  Among the things my students were grateful for this year were:  apples and pumpkins; family and friends; cats purring; consciousness of breathing; healthcare while dealing with mono; laughing until their stomach hurt; Halloween; views from the top of a mountain; top

hiking, hiking, and more hiking—with friends, with family, in the Delaware Water Gap, in southern Pennsylvania, in Mohonk, and near their homes; yoga; leaves changing; rain and water (from a student whose home is in California, where rain these days is so important); dogs and fish; periods of disconnection from technology; living simply; amazing morning skies and gorgeous sunsets seen from a train car;

sunset

the skyline with the Brooklyn Bridge; the chance to study what one is passionate about; love; their bosses; popcorn and pizza; moments when the world is quiet (or quieter); and the greenest grass on a cloudy day. The liturgies they wrote included guided Buddhist meditations, Native American invocations, and Christian and Buddhist prayers of thanksgiving.

Most of these students don’t practice a religion. All but one has never written a piece of liturgy in their lives and may never do so again. The gratitude, though, shines out from each and every one of their assignments as they work to find ways to give thanks for each of their daily lives.   In the discussion at the end of this week’s class, one student announced that this assignment was her favorite assignment, not only in this class or this semester, but in her three years at Pace. I tend to agree with her- I think it’s my favorite assignment as well.