The text that follows comes from a sermon preached at Resurrection Lutheran Church, Roxbury, MA, January 11, 2015, The Baptism of Our Lord
This is my Bible text today, from the Gospel, Mark 1:9-11: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And this is my theme: Floods, Ferguson, and Fellowship.
When I was a teenager, growing up in Buffalo, New York, during the hottest days of summer, my friends and I would sometimes jump in someone’s car and drive over to the Niagara River to go for a swim. We’d go swimming far above the famous Niagara Falls, of course, lest we be swept along and over those falls. But even as it was lots of fun, it was also scary. Kept thinking about those Falls.
I guess that the Jordan River, in which Jesus was baptized, wasn’t nearly as scary. It was rather placid in those days. But Jesus, of course, was baptized into his death. Likewise you and me, when we go down to the river, are baptized into the death of Jesus. It’s a scary thought. But I’ll get to that in a bit.
Here I want to talk about the floods of this world. Water isn’t always your friend, is it? Ask anyone who was inside this building a several weeks ago. How many buckets of water had to be carried away, since the storms were pouring rain into this porous building, as if it were the time of Noah?
I was over at Harvard Yard last year, joining a protest to demand that the University divest itself of fossil fuel stocks, in order to address the threats of climate change. One of the speakers, an environmental scientist, pointed out that if things don’t change right away, then in the next twenty years the waters of Massachusetts Bay are going to rise so much that you’ll be able to row, row, row your boat from Boston Harbor right to the edge of Harvard Yard.
A few years ago, on a church trip to Alaska, I heard about members of a little Lutheran Church from the northerly island of Shismarif. Those Lutherans were native people. Their forebears had lived on that small island for more than a thousand years.
But that long story’s now coming to an end. Due to climate change, the ocean around Shismarif is rising to the point where it’s already beginning to flood the island. Before too long, the Lutheran Church of Shismarif will be under water. As a result, those Lutherans are going to have to move from their ancestral home in the next few years, to God-knows-where.
Now the Bible tells us something more about the floods of this world. This is suggested by our first Scripture reading today, from the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, verses 1 and 2: “…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters….”
The word used for wind here could also be translated Spirit. Not the wind of God, in other words, but the Spirit of God swept over the waters. Christians preferred that translation right from the start.
The best meaning I can derive from all this, for us, is this: the Spirit of God’s now at work, trying to hold back at least some of the chaos on this earth, so that we humans might have some time, here and now, to do what we can do to protect the earth and all its creatures, before it’s too late.
That’s good news of a kind, if I’m right in this interpretation. The floods of this world are frightful indeed, but the Spirit of God is there working to keep the chaos in check, to give us humans some time to repent and to rededicate our lives to caring for this earth and all its creatures.
Such are the floods of this world.
Now – Ferguson. Which is still in the news, as you know.
By way of introduction, let me first tell you about the Town of Wellesley thirteen miles west of here. In another lifetime, I used to live in Wellesley. So did a member of the Boston Celtics in those days, one Dee Brown. Some of you may remember him. One night after a game at the Boston Garden, Dee Brown was driving home with his wife. Not too far from his house in Wellesley, he and his wife were pulled over by the police. After the officer, who’d pulled Dee Brown over, discovered whom he’d stopped, the officer apologized and sent Dee Brown on his way.
What was that all about? Yes, the police said they were looking for a single bank robber. But Dee Brown was driving with his wife. Did it have anything to do with the fact that Dee Brown is black?
I’ve been agonizing about Ferguson, ever since that story first broke. Not that the story is new news, but that a lot of people in the press and around the country seem to think that it’s new news. Without going into any confidential details, I can tell you that I’ve heard stories in this congregation about people who’ve been pulled over for no particular reason, except for the color of their skin.
Tell me, too, about people who’ve been shot, in inordinate numbers, here in Roxbury. Tell me about parents who’ve had to have “the talk” with their beautiful young children. Tell me about the massive incarceration of young black men even in liberal Massachusetts. Why do we keep adding names of young black men in prison to our prayer list?
Now Jesus, the one who’s been through the waters already, the one upon whom the Spirit descended, will have none of this Ferguson kind of stuff. True.
This is the Gospel picture of Jesus’ mission, after the Spirit had descended upon him, according to the Gospel of Luke, chapter four: “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee…. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read…. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’” (Luke 4:14-19)
I don’t want to sound chauvinistic here, but let me tell you this. Jesus was a good Lutheran! Or, better, Jesus was a very good Protestant, long before the times of Martin Luther. Jesus protested! Jesus protested against what was being done to the poor. Jesus protested against what was being done to those imprisoned. Jesus protested against all the oppressors of this world.
Which means, I’m perfectly sure, that Jesus, anointed by the Spirit of God, stands with the Mike Browns of this world and over against the powerful, who oppress the downtrodden and persecute those of low degree.
But I have a question. What’s an old white guy like me to do in the world of Wellesley or Ferguson or Boston? Shape up, I guess. I think about this and pray about it all the time.
So far, I’ve only been able to come up with one idea. Actually, a very small idea.
I’ve discovered that I’ve been doing at least one thing right in my almost 50 years in the ministry. It dawned on me the other day, right here in church. My God, I’ve been saying the benediction every Sunday, for almost fifty years with these two hands. Like this. Holding up these two hands to bless you. Look familiar?
So I’ve decided that every time I say the Benediction, every time I hold up these two hands, for as often as I have breath left to say it, I’m going to think these thoughts and take these thoughts to heart: black lives matter in Ferguson; black lives matter in Wellesley; black lives matter in Boston. The lives of those kidnapped Nigerian girls matter. The lives of the thousands of people in West Africa who’ve been stricken with ebola matter.
This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who was anointed by the Spirit, who came to liberate all the oppressed of this world.
Okay. Floods. Ferguson. Now, in conclusion, fellowship. This may sound like an anticlimax. I mean, the floods of this world are dramatic. The Fergusons of this world are dramatic. But fellowship?
On the contrary, I say to those of you who’re thinking that fellowship’s about as dramatic as chewing gum.
Here in this fellowship is where you and I tune into the power of the Spirit of God who hovers over the floods of this world. Here in this fellowship is where you and I tune into the Spirit of God who descended upon the Lord Jesus, in the midst of the waters. Here in this fellowship is where you and I tune into the Spirit of God, who descended upon you and me in our Baptisms. Here in this fellowship is where you and I receive the power of the Spirit anew to go out into the world: to love and to serve and to protest, as Jesus did.
When I was a college chaplain many years ago, inquiring students sometimes would ask me: do you have to believe in Jesus Christ to be saved? I’d answer: as far as I know, that’s all in God’s loving hands. So, not to worry.
But I’ll tell you this. You do have to believe in Jesus Christ to be called by the Spirit to love and to serve and to protest in his Name. You do have to believe in Jesus Christ to take up his Cross in this particular place or in any place.
What am I saying? You’ve got to be empowered. I’ve got to be empowered. Who in their right mind would choose the way of the Cross? I mean, let me curl up on my couch with some chips and watch the Celtics any day. Please Lord, not another protest! It could get me in trouble! Look what happened to Jesus! Look what happened to Dr. King!
Here’s the point. The Holy Spirit has got to empower me before any of that loving and serving and protesting stuff can happen. Likewise for you. Because here, in this fellowship, baptized friend, is where you tune into the power of the Holy Spirit, week after week.
Let me put it this way. To follow Jesus, who protested against all the powers of this world in the power of the Spirit, you’ve got to have a support group. I’ve got to have a support group.
And a support group doesn’t have to be huge. You don’t have to be part of a megachurch to be claimed every Sunday by the Spirit. In our lesson from Acts, we hear that Paul was in Ephesus. There, when he baptized some people who wanted to follow Jesus, “the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied – altogether there were about twelve of them.” (Acts 19:6-7). Twelve! Not a megachurch!
So you come here to this modest fellowship, week after week, year after year, so that you can reclaim your call to be a follower of Jesus – so you can let the Spirit go to work in your life all over again
That way, the Holy Spirit, who descended on you in your Baptism, as the Spirit descended on Jesus in his, will keep empowering you to love and to serve and to protest, so that you won’t be blown off course by all the floods of this world – so that you won’t get so discouraged that you give up.
You need the power. I need the power. And here’s where we get it.
I watched a public TV nature-program not too long ago. It was about a certain kind of tropical bird, of all things, a bird which typically nests inside a hole, high in a tree.
So I know what you’re thinking now. You think that fellowship’s not all that dramatic, compared to floods and Ferguson. Now I’m telling you a bird story? Please.
But didn’t the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus – like a dove? Gotcha. Be that as it may, this is my bird story.
As I watched that TV program, we saw how, at a certain point, one of the parents pushes the baby birds out of the nest, to fly out on their own. It was quite comical, as a matter of fact, to see those little birds flapping their tiny wings, trying to fly. A couple of them went crashing to the ground. But then they flapped their wings and flew away.
That’s my point. You and I both need this support group, every Sunday. You and I both need this fellowship, this nest, where we can grow into maturity as disciples of Jesus. And then, as time goes by, the Spirit’s going to push you out of this nest, to test your own wings.
As a matter of fact, the Spirit – the dove – is going to keep doing that all the days of your church-going life. I don’t know whether doves do that in the wild, but that’s what those birds I saw on TV did. Push you out of the nest.
That’s why you got sprinkled this morning, when we re-enacted our Baptisms. I mean, it wasn’t the Niagara River or even the Jordan. But I got you as wet as I could, as we all remembered our Baptisms.
I sprinkled you to remind you that the Lord Jesus Christ has called you in your Baptism, when you received the Spirit, so that you can love and serve and protest, all the days of your life. I sprinkled you to remind you that God’s given you his Spirit, not only to feed you with the bread of life here, but also to push you out of this fellowship, to use your own wings out there.
So fly away, you disciples of Jesus. Never mind the floods. Never mind the Fergusons. Fly away. Love. Serve. Protest. You can do it, because you’re strong in the Spirit. Amen? Amen.
It must have been Garrison Keillor who observed that at the gates of heaven the Jews will carry a shofar, the Catholics a crucifix, and the Lutherans a bowl of Jello. I saw signs of that Lutheran sensibility on the streets of Manhattan on Sunday, September 21, 2014, during the Peoples Climate March. But I celebrate that sensibility.
Just about every group that I saw carried its own sign or banner or flag, announcing its identity and its presence and promoting its own commitment to this good cause: the Hare Krishnas, the Unitarians, the Service Employees International Union, 350.org, the Sierra Club, the Hindus, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, St. John’s Sunday School, Harlem, and many more.
We Lutherans carried three by two foot green signs, with “Climate Justice: For All of God’s Creation” in large letters. In tiny print, I mean really tiny print, down in the corner of our signs, if you held the sign close to your eyes, as if you were reading a newspaper, you could identify these words, “Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.” Onlookers might well have wondered: who are those creation justice people with those bright green signs?
I gently chided one of the Lutheran staff workers about this, a young woman from the church’s advocacy office in the nation’s capital. It turned out that she had had a hand in designing our signs. “It never crossed my mind,” she said, “to put ‘Lutherans’ in big letters. We were looking for the distinct message we wanted to convey, and we thought that ‘Climate Justice for All God’s Creation’ was it.” I agreed. Bless her. Good Lutherans always strive to announce the Truth, never to announce themselves!
On the face of it, that approach makes sense. After all, as far as I could tell, there were fewer than a hundred self-identifying Lutherans participating in that march of some 310,000 souls. And we were to make a big deal about our identity? Be that as it may, I was proud (a non-Lutheran sentiment, I know) to be carrying my own modest sign. Why? Because we had got it right. We had left Lake Wobegon and headed for the streets of Manhattan.
Consider the Truth of the Gospel Procession. The Mass for Creation I attended at 8:45 a.m. that Sunday morning at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Manhattan, was replete with processions, even though it was a low Mass: from the baptismal pool to the Table, from the Table, with the bread and wine, down into the midst of the people, from the pews moving to meet the ministers of the Eucharist, from that whole place of assembly – all together now, passing near the baptismal pool, making the sign of the Cross with the water along the way – to a meeting room, for instructions and coffee. Then we continued processing out into the streets of Manhattan.
St. Peter’s does it all the more dramatically during the great Mass of the Easter Vigil. For a segment of the Scripture readings during that high liturgy, the whole congregation processes out of the sanctuary right on to the busy sidewalks of midtown Manhattan on a Saturday night. There, led by a processional Cross, vested clergy, and trumpets, the congregation sings Easter hymns as it marches to each corner of the block, from 54th Street and Lexington Avenue and back again. At each corner the Word of God is announced, with the help of a good electric megaphone.
Let’s hear it for the Gospel Procession! Call it a bowl of jello, if you wish. But this is the liberating Truth – unheard amidst the noise of our society as it often is — for the crowds that walk such streets at any time and for those undocumented families that pick the apples in Washington State and for those nameless workers who wash the floors and change the linens in the high-rise hotels of Hong Kong and for those Inuit Lutheran parishioners whose families have lived on the island of Shismaref in Alaska for hundreds of generations, for the first time now being flooded by rising ocean currents.
Never mind what you see. It’s all going somewhere! There’s hope for the whole creation! There’s justice, finally, for every creature! It may not look like much. What’s a modest hundred, mostly waspish Lutheran marchers compared to a huge, incredibly diverse 310,000? What’s a mere 310,000 marchers compared to the upwards of 13 million citizens who live in greater New York City? What’s a New York City committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 compared to the whole nation of India now planning to add 455 coal-fired plants for electricity in the next few years?
The point, for Lutherans at least, is this. Open the sanctuary doors and get that Gospel procession out on to the streets. Never mind if others think that you’re carrying jello. In fact, by faith alone we’re carrying the Gospel Truth. There’s hope for every creature! That’s what we’ve been called to announce, in the midst of all the other countless and likewise called groups and communities and organizations who also care about the good Earth and all its inhabitants.
I saw one sign: “Atheists for Climate Justice.” I have no doubt that they were called by God to be there. For us Lutherans, I say: whatever else others might be saying or doing, bring your Jello to the march. Call it our bowls of compassion.
Why is this the most frequently recorded of all Bach’s cantatas? Its beauty, no doubt. My wife, Laurel, and I surely were overwhelmed by this gentle but powerful song of faith – this is one of the few Bach cantatas that does not have a chorus — played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, on a dark and rainy October afternoon.
We joked about the words of the cantata afterwards, on our way to a nearby Ethiopian restaurant. Ich habe genug! That doesn’t mean, “I’ve had enough,” I reminded her. No, Bach speaks in the present tense. “I have enough.”
Contrast my own response to many of the trends of our society these days. More than once, in recent years, I have had the impulse to say “I’ve had enough.”
I read the papers each day not because I want to, but as a habit or a discipline. There’s Ebola in West Africa. There’s the climate crisis and the Middle East. There’s the atrocious fact that the poor keep getting poorer all over the world. Not to speak of continued police violence directed at African-Americans in our own country.
Then there’s the sometimes vicious 24-hour TV news cycle. Referring to the Ebola epidemic, the Drudge Report called Obama – “President Obola.” I watched most of a TV debate by the candidates for the Senate in New Hampshire, during which the Republican, Scott Brown, announced that if his candidate, Mitt Romney, had been President, not Obama, we wouldn’t have had an Ebola crisis today! Somehow Obama is responsible for Ebola!
Stop the world, I want to get off! I’ve had enough.
On the subway to the concert, Laurel had her own intense moment of agitation. At the Park Street station, the MBTA had changed the track it had used for years to the Symphony stop, without putting up any signs. As we sat there then, waiting for the right train to arrive on the wrong track, we almost missed the beginning of the concert! The Bach! “I’ve had it!” Laurel said, no doubt thinking of the countless bureaucratic idiocies of our technologized world today.
I’ve had it? I’ve had enough?
Bach, in contrast, sings in the present tense. I have enough. Clearly this is a voice from a bygone age of faith. On the other hand, many citizens of our age of unfaith cannot help but want to listen to Bach’s moving personal testimony, as often as possible: “I have enough,/ I have taken the Savior,/ the hope of the righteous,/ into my arms….”
Bach was by no means some naïve, childish prophet who believed that things are better than they look or that things will get better and better. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) affected four generations of the Bach family, and was a vivid memory. Bach himself lost a number of children — and wives — to various accidents of history during his relatively long life.(1685-1750) Nevertheless he announces to his world and to his God in this, the most intimate confession of his faith, “I have enough.” I don’t need anything else!
Bach is working with the church’s lectionary here which features the story of the old man Simeon in the temple, who cradles the infant Jesus in his arms, and sings these words (as I remember them, from my own childhood): “Lord, now lettest thou, thy servant, depart in peace. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
This is how the first aria of Ich Habe Genug begins: “I have enough,/ I have taken the Savior,/ the hope of the righteous,/ into my arms;/ I have enough!/ I have beheld Him,/ my faith has pressed Jesus/ to my heart;/ now I wish, even today/ with joy/ to depart from here.”
This amazingly gifted church musician, greatest perhaps among all the great composers, utters so powerfully and so movingly this simple statement of trust. Like Simeon, he is now ready, even eager to die. And, turning the image around, he envisions this astounding journey “into the cool soil of earth,” where he can rest in “the lap of Jesus.”
So Bach sings, with the words of some unidentified poet (himself?): “My God! When will the/ lovely ‘now!’ come,/ when I will journey into peace/ and into the cool soil of earth,/ and there, near You, rest in Your lap?”
Of course, as I leaned forward to listen, I recalled that in a few weeks I would mark my 79th birthday. My remaining days on this good earth are relatively few. Where am I going? What am I to do with the rest of my life? How am I to pray? Am I ready to depart and be with Jesus in the cool soil of the earth?
Laurel and I have decided that our ashes are to be interred in the Hidden Garden (so we call it) behind our old farm house in southwestern Maine. I have written at some length about this story. Our ashes will be dug into the cool soil of the earth at the foot of a grand, albeit still young, purple beech, which we planted there, marked by a small Celtic Cross which we also placed there. That to me, inspired by the testimony of witnesses like Bach, is where Laurel and I can rest in the lap of Jesus. Not in some far off heaven, far removed from this earth.
This means that I can begin my day tomorrow with joy and resolve, as I hopefully will be inspired to do: to engage a world which often drives me to say, “I’ve had enough.” with abandon, because, deep within, I know that I have enough.
Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
In the liberal state of Massachusetts, a woman phoned into a radio talk show to ask that state’s governor a question: “Why do we have to spend our money to take care of somebody else’s children?” She was referring to the governor’s announced intention to provide a temporary, but safe place for some of the thousands of children who had been crossing into the U.S. from Mexico, in order to escape the constant violence of countries like Honduras.
Hers was a representative voice. Many Americans, some card-carrying Christians among them, are likewise distressed by the flood of immigrants crossing into the U.S. from the south. Thankfully, church leaders of all stripes are standing up to speak in behalf of those children. Whose voices will carry the day?
This is a kairos moment for Americans in general and for American Christians in particular. Kairos is one of the two Greek words for “time.” Kairos means “the right time” or an “urgent time”: the time for the harvest, for example, or the time for the birth of a baby. In the 1980’s an ecumenical group of Christians in South Africa produced what they called “the Kairos Document,” a biblically based statement calling for the end of apartheid and all its violence. Thanks, in part, to their leadership, the South African people rose to the occasion, with a pervasive and passionate commitment to non-violent resistance. It was the beginning of the ending of the apartheid system.
The exodus of the children from Mexico into the U.S. may well be a kairos moment for our country, likewise, particularly for those who are committed to follow Jesus. All over the earth today, refugees are flooding into neighboring areas, desperately. Think not only of the U.S.-Mexico border, but of places like Syria and Gaza. But those are just today’s headlines.
Forces are also at work around the globe, driven by climate change, that will before too long produce countless millions of “environmental immigrants,” as well, people like those mostly poor families who live in Bangladesh, who will be driven from their ancestral lands by rising ocean waters.
Ours is indeed a kairos moment, not only politically, as in the case of the children’s exodus, but also ecologically, as in the case of threats to the very lives of millions of the poor of the earth in places like Bangladesh. How will Americans, particularly American Christians, respond to this kairos?
We could pout and then go sit in our gated communities or wherever, making sure not to listen to the daily news too much. We could complain the way that caller did to the Governor of Massachusetts. Call that the Jonah strategy. Jonah pouted when God didn’t destroy Nineveh, the way Jonah wanted God to do. (Jon. 4:1-5) So some Americans pout: why should we have to pay attention to, not to speak of paying to help, all those political and environmental refugees?
But that’s not the way the God whom we know from the pages of the Bible wants things to be. God cares for all the children of this earth, including those living in alien places like Nineveh. God even cares about the animals of Nineveh! (Jon. 4:11) Are we going to pout about the Ninevehs of this world? Maybe even buy a gun or two in order to feel more secure?
St. Paul was faced with this kind of choice. And he was ambivalent about it. (Phil. 1:22-24) Frankly, he said, he’d rather depart this stressful life and be with Jesus in the kingdom to come, where he could be at home, once and for all, and not have to face up to all the stresses and strains of his ministry: prison, persecution, ship-wrecks, church members fighting with one another. But, notwithstanding the ambivalence, Paul knew who he was, one who had been called to take up his cross and follow Jesus. (Phil. 1:21)
What does “dying with Christ” mean for those of us American Christians who live relatively comfortable, relatively secure and well fed, well cared-for lives? What is our kairos moment saying to us? How will we take to heart the plight of millions of political and environmental refugees today and in the years to come? What sacrifices are we prepared to make? How are we to take up our crosses, in this respect?
Are we ready to sacrifice time and resources so we can rally around our church leaders who are calling our whole society to love and care for the refugees at our borders, particularly the children among them? Are we ready to sacrifice our sometimes anxious sense of security, by welcoming refugees into our own communities and congregations? Are we ready to risk disapproval from our neighbors, by vociferously raising the issues posed by climate change or by passionately speaking out in behalf of those animals suffering the tortures of industrial agriculture?
But to do that, to be ready even to think about sacrificing ourselves, taking up our crosses, we’ve probably got to deal first with an inner agenda. And that may be the most difficult thing of all.
Many of us have borne the heat and burden of the day. We’ve been working long and hard, like our parents and maybe our grandparents before us. (That our grandparents were poor immigrants from Germany or Sweden or Ireland is another matter. Worth thinking about, though.) Why should we share our land and our resources and our economy and the fruits of our labors with all these latecomers flooding across our borders? Why should we have to change our way of life so that poor Bangladeshi children won’t be driven from their homes into even deeper poverty and social insecurity by rising waters?
Jesus has another take on these matters. Those laborers who came to work in the vineyard at the end of the day were paid the same wages as those who had born the heat and burden of the day! (Mt. 29:9) That’s why those who worked all day of course grumbled, (Mt. 20:10-11) like the woman talking to the Governor of Massachusetts. But Jesus has a simple answer to such inner discontent on the part of those who’ve worked so hard. God is a generous God! God cares for everybody! So we all are free to do the same!
Are we ready to make that inner change, to take the generosity of God to heart and to go and do likewise? And to sing along the way, praising the generosity of God? Singing with the Psalmist: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (Ps. 145:8f.) Isn’t the time – the kairos – at hand now, for all of us to sing this song, praising the generosity of God, both in word and in deed?
For more information about “the crisis at the border” and advocacy opportunities in behalf of refugees, see the website of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service: http://lirs.org/
Every late fall, I rake the forest path. It usually takes me a couple of days. I began to carve out that path at the edges of the rugged, wooded hill behind our old farm house in rural, southwestern Maine some forty years ago.
I love to saunter up and down and around that path whenever I can, to let my mind wander, to contemplate the larger things of life, and to encounter surprises along the way, a huge, fallen branch from a hundred-year old white pine, a pristine rhododendron blossom, the telltale knocking of an unseen woodpecker, the mysterious footprints of a moose. For me, this walk is a way of loving nature.
But I couldn’t do the walking without the raking. In the fall that path totally disappears underneath a thick layer of oak and beech leaves. When that happens, even I sometimes have trouble following the path. Still more of a problem, if the path isn’t raked, it can be hazardous. Left to itself, that layer of leaves is like a sheet of ice. The leaves cover over fallen branches, too, on which you can get tripped up. So you can easily go careening down the path and smash into a tree or even fall over a ledge. Hence my regular raking.
I have only recently realized, after the publication of my book, Before Nature, that that raking and that walking tell the evolving story of my own spirituality of loving nature that I narrate in that book. My understanding of God was challenged and it changed. My approach to spiritual practices changed as well.
I want to tell that story here, in brief, because spirituality is all the rage these days, especially the spirituality of nature, and some who are so engaged seem to have lost their way. Be that as it may, I hope that at least a few who are seeking to love nature more fervently will benefit from hearing the personal story I am about to tell. I also hope that this brief story here will whet the reader’s appetite for the full story which I narrate in Before Nature.
I was baptized almost eighty years ago, “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” Years later, beginning in the late nineteen-sixties, when I served as the Chaplain of a women’s school, Wellesley College, I found myself questioning the spirituality I had inherited with my Baptism.
In those days, I invited feminist theologians to preach in the college chapel where I presided, people like Mary Daly and Rosemarie Radford Ruether. No way could I escape wrestling with the charge they made that Christianity, with its accent on “God, the Father almighty,” was spiritually destructive, precisely because it preached, or was alleged to preach, the rule of a dominating, exploitative male God. They also said that Christianity has been destructive of nature, that the vision of a domineering heavenly Father led in practice to the exploitation of the earth.
Those feminist theologians were not the only ones in those years who objected to historic Christianity on the grounds of its allegedly destructive approach to nature. Many other critics said the same, often on the basis of historical analysis of the role the Christian faith had played in fomenting modern industrial society’s exploitation of nature. Christians, said many of these critics, care only about God and humanity, not about nature.
And I thought of myself as a lover of nature!? Not for nothing did I carve out and care for and walk along that ascending and descending forest path in southwestern Maine. But what kind of spiritual path was I really following?
Early on, I decided that the critics, overall, had their point. As a lover of nature, I would therefore have to rake away a lot of dead ideas, if I were to uncover the viable spirituality of nature that I instinctively knew was there underneath it all. My understanding of God would have to change, to begin with. Fortunately, others had begun to respond to the same kind of challenge, in their own settings.
First, I learned from the Reformed theologian Juergen Moltmann how God the Father can helpfully be engaged as God “the motherly Father.” Thus understood, we also can envision the Father as suffering with the Son on the Cross.
In a word, God the Father is not some dominating heavenly patriarch, far removed from our suffering or the suffering of other creatures. God the Father, rather, is the eternal Giver, “in, with, and under” (Luther) the whole creation. God the Father loves the whole world, as John 3:16, my Confirmation text, says, not just humans. And God the Father will therefore, one day, bring all things to fulfilment and joy in the bosom of the Father, not just humans.
Second, I learned that God the Father alone is not the Creator, even though our creeds, understood just by themselves, tend to leave us with that impression. The whole Trinity is the Creator.
The Son is the “cosmic Christ.” That conviction is attested throughout the New Testament, but especially in the Letter to the Colossians, as the Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler taught me. According to Colossians, Christ is “before all things, and in him all thing hold together.” (Col. 1:17)
The Spirit, likewise, is the “Lifegiver” of all things, a thought highlighted most instructively by the Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Johnson. This image is especially vivid in Genesis 1:2, where we see the Spirit hovering creatively over the primeval waters of the world coming into being.
Third, I learned from a number of scholars who had studied ancient Christianity in the context of the Roman Empire that the earliest expressions of the Christian faith in God, the Father of Jesus, were totally opposed to the domination or the exploitation of anything.
The God whom Jesus proclaimed, according to the Gospel of Luke, is the God who liberates the poor, who lets the oppressed go free.(see Luke 4:16-21) The God whom Paul announced is a God who hears the groaning of the whole creation and who works to liberate the whole creation. As Paul says in Romans 8, “the whole creation has been groaning in travail” (v. 22) and will itself “be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (v. 21)
For Paul, more particularly, this God is revealed in the lordship of Jesus Christ. And that lordship is nonviolent and compassionate. For this reason Paul stood opposed to the violent and self-exalting lordship of Caesar, including Caesar’s destructive policies toward the world of nature in his own day. Scholars have shown that members of the churches in Rome, to whom Paul wrote, would have well understood “the groaning of creation” as referring, in part, to Roman desecration of the natural world, in order to bolster the Empire’s own wealth and power.
With my spiritual path thus cleared of old ideas, having uncovered those new understandings of God, I also realized that I would have to “walk the walk” of prayer in a new way. I concluded that my regular regimen of Sunday liturgy and daily prayers over meals and at bedtime was not enough. Somehow I would need to develop a deeper awareness of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the whole creation every moment of my life. Could I learn to “pray without ceasing,” as the Scriptures admonished us to do? (I Thess. 5:17)
Providentially, I came upon a Christian tradition that practiced precisely that approach to prayer. A number of Eastern Orthodox writers had championed what they thought of as “the Jesus Prayer,” in order explore what it might mean to pray without ceasing. I adopted that prayer and then took it further, as I developed my own spiritual practices anew.
The prayer I eventually learned to say regularly begins like that Eastern Orthodox prayer, by calling to Jesus and asking for his mercy. In my view, that’s the best way for all of us sinners to begin our prayers. But I needed to be more explicit about other equally familiar themes of our faith.
Hence the prayer I began to use regularly goes beyond a plea to Jesus for mercy. It centers on the mystery of the Trinity, the name in which I was baptized and the God whom I know in, with, and under the whole creation, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My prayer then concludes by calling on the Spirit to sanctify all things, to realize all the promises of God for the whole creation and to do so without delay.
I call this “the Trinity Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Come Holy Spirit, come and reign.” All these are ancient Christian themes, obviously. That’s why, as a matter of fact, they speak to me so powerfully.
I have found that repeating the Trinity Prayer as often as possible during the day – weaving in the new understandings of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that have been given to me since my days at Wellesley College — can work to keep me on a very good spiritual path as far as nature is concerned. Because the God whom I thus constantly address is the God of the whole creation.
I hope that all will understand that, for me, my raking and walking this way in “the cathedral of the great outdoors,” on any given day in southwestern Maine, presupposes my walking into and worshiping within “the cathedral of the great indoors” every Sunday, in inner-city Boston, Massachusetts. I continue to be a devout church-goer and also an ardent advocate of urban ministry. In Boston, too, I do everything I can, both publicly and privately, to help those who are struggling to address life-threatening climate-change challenges. But those are stories for another time.
This is my Christian spirituality of nature today, toward the end of my life, a regular raking and a frequent walking along that forest path that I hope I can continue as long as I enjoy the breath of life, praying the Trinity Prayer as often as possible: thus constantly being aware of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the God of nature, as well as humankind. This I recommend as a tested Christian way to love nature, as God does.