Monday, November 23, 2009

A New Covenant with the Earth

About 20 years ago I was at a diocesan clergy conference with the Rev. Herbert O'Driscoll, an extraordinary Anglican preacher and educator on homiletics. His topic for the conference was developing what he considered to be important scripture themes for this time. One of those themes was "a new covenant with the earth." That thought of a new covenant has been for me a profound way into a spiritual re-framing of our relationship with the earth in a time of a growing ecological crisis that has been largely due to our wanton misuse and exploitation of the world's natural resources.

In Christianity we have had several "covenant" understandings that we should examine and see how often the fruit of those understandings have been destructive. Two ancient Judeo-Christian mythic stories come to mind for me. The first version of the creation story (yes, there are two versions) in Genesis tells of the "days" of creation culminating in the creation of humanity on the sixth day with this warrant:
God blessed them, and God said to [human beings], "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." (Genesis 1:28)

The theological warrant for domination of the earth is drawn from that story. The second version of the creation story in Genesis 2 is slightly different in that God places the human in a garden (of Eden) and the human's purpose there is "to till it and keep it" (Genesis 2:15). Husbandry is the purpose of humanity in that story rather than domination. In the first version humans are clearly at the top of an order of domination. Humans are more removed from the rest of creation and are given authority to subdue and dominate it. In the second version humans are closer to creation. Humans have a job tending the garden. They are still somewhat removed because they can name things (and therefore exert some control) and eat from everything but the forbidden fruit but the relationship is closer to being a steward of God's creation.

In a later mythic story a "covenant" is established between God and Noah after the great flood that destroys all living things except that which was saved on the ark. In Genesis 8 and 9 that covenant includes: God never again cursing the ground because of humans and never again destroying every living thing (8:21-22); and giving over every living thing to human control (9:1-3). The primary theological warrant that humans are removed from the rest of creation and given dominance by God over creation still seems to be in place. An anthropocentric hierarchy over creation gets firmly established.

This has largely been unquestioned (at least within Christian thought) until we began awakening to the ecological crisis we have been causing with this deadly sense of privileged domination. Native Americans with traditional spiritual understandings see things quite differently. Humans are a part of a whole community of creation, sharing a kinship with other beings. There is no radical separation from the rest of creation.

Eco-spirituality in Christian theology looks at the domination motif as something we need to repent from. Separating humanity from the rest of creation violates the relational basis in life--we are actually a web of interdependent, mutual relationships which we should tend and provide care for mutual benefit. All creation is a part of a sacred body--there is no separation or hierarchy between the material and spiritual. God, though not fully contained in creation, is not radically separate from the cosmos. And we are accountable for our relationship with the earth to Christ.

So as we look to Thanksgiving Day and other times of gratitude for what the earth so generously provides for us to sustain our lives, this would be a good time to make a new covenant--a new sacred promised relationship of mutuality with this good earth and with the God that so delights in all creation. We have much to do to repent from our exploitative ways and repair our relationship with this earth that is our home. Let this 21st century be the time of a major new Earth Covenant that embraces the wisdom of many faith traditions in the shared commitment to reformed practices, a renewed relationship of respect with the earth, and a boldness to challenge narrow economic, political, social, and personal privileged self-interests.


Here’s a little postscript. After writing this meditation I took a walk by San Pablo Bay and it came to me that students of Celtic influences on Christian spirituality may take issue with my rather blanket indictment based on the later tradition’s relationship with nature. There are some medieval sources that see nature as graced and we benefit from this branch of a more “earthy” spiritual tradition in Christianity.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Many things need good containers and certainly that is the case with wine making. I use good food-grade plastic containers and glass carboys that hold up to 6.5 gallons of wine. These containers have fermentation locks which allows carbon dioxide to escape during with wine's fermentation process but also keeps outside airborne yeasts from coming in and contaminating the wine. There's a familiar saying attributed to Jesus in three of the gospels about not putting new wine in old wine skins (Matthew 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37-39). In those days new wine would be put in new wine skins because fermentation would continue and the new skins would be flexible and pliant enough to expand. Old skins would harden and not expand with the continuing fermentation, resulting in burst skins and lost wine.

In the past 25 years there has been interesting work done on approaching faith and human maturation developmentally. Building on Jean Piaget's theory of child cognitive development and Erik Erikson's work on adult psycho-social development, James Fowler, Robert Kegan, and Elizabeth Liebert are some of the writers who apply this approach to spiritual life and faith development. I think of increasingly large "containers" that hold our understanding of God, reality, relationships, faith, and meaning. Sometimes we grow out of an old container and need a new one that is larger and more expansive. At an earlier time in our life we probably needed a concrete, literal understanding of scripture. God was seen in human terms. Rules and laws gave a safe structure to understanding the "right way" to live. Later, as abstract reasoning develops we might begin to question some of the earlier ways of understanding. We might begin to understand that there is a place for myth and metaphor, the power of symbolic truth as well as literal truth. Hopefully, church and authority structures are flexible and expandable enough to hold us in our questioning. (Which is, unfortunately, not always the case.) And we might come to understand that the way we understand God changes over time--and that eventually we may find that no container can completely hold God or our spirit.

In spiritual guidance work we try to provide a safe and respectful container that is flexible and expandable enough to hold our group or directee so they can do the inner work they desire to do. We try to honor where the person is in their own faith/spiritual development and be available to them as they form their questions, discover their sense of wonder and mystery, explore meaning, and seek wisdom.

How flexible and expandable is the wine skin of your spirit? What would happen if you burst that container?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Connected in God's Love

I write this entry on the occasion of All Saints' Day in the church's liturgical year--November 1. Our society just widely celebrated Halloween, the evening before All Hallows' (Saints') Day. Today and the day following (All Souls Day or All Faithful Departed) is a special time for the Christian community to remember and give thanks for being connected through God's love with all those who support us in our lives, the saints who have gone before us who are witnesses to the spiritual foundation of our living, and also our personal circle of people who have touched our lives but have died.

That sense of being connected, even with those who are no longer living, is a powerful spiritual dynamic which can have a positive and negative side to it. In grief we might feel deeply connected to a deceased loved one and have that as a consolation--but we might also feel the pain of disconnection and insurmountable distance. Some of my directees or former parishioners have had things they wished to say to a loved one but death or incapacity came too soon for that to be expressed. And sometimes we miss people terribly. Times like All Saints' Day can be a special time, poignant and tearful perhaps, where we can be with a community that honors those who have been important to us and pray for them, and remember that by God's grace we are in communion with all the "saints" past, present, and yet to come.

Scripture gives us some hints of that connectedness. I think of Jesus' words in the gospel of John that he is the vine and we the branches (15:5); or Paul's moving statement of faith: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39).

That connectedness as a spiritual reality is something that I can occasionally intuitively, prayerfully, sense; and often just simply take on faith. There are times when I will pray to God to "pass" this or that little message onto my deceased loved one. Or some moment will come that reminds me of someone who has died or is geographically distant and I'll just speak to that person as an act shall I name this...imagination? that on some deep level we are all still connected? I know that in my heart, my inner world, there is room aplenty for the living and those who are no longer alive on this plane of reality; time and space are not such linear things there. That ancient Celtic intuition of "thin places" seems to be much more accessible.

I love this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer (p. 395):
Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.