An intimate conversation with sacred experience

Category: Church

Communal Faith and Climate Change

Every day I become more convinced that the pressing social justice issue of our times, the single most important problem that individuals and congregations and governments need to address, is our warming planet.  And every day I’m more convinced that an essential (perhaps the essential) source of a solution rests in our faith—not necessarily the Christian faith, although that will do, but humanity’s faith in the sacred wholeness of creation.

Since my brand of faith is Christian, look with me through one Christian lens at one solution.  Krista Tippett recently interviewed Nadia Bolz-Weber, the pastor at The Church of All Sinners and Saints, an emergent Lutheran congregation in Denver, Colorado.  Bolz-Weber said, “I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals… I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities.”  She gave a few examples:  Some people think they can’t say the Apostles’ Creed because they don’t believe all that it says.  “I’m like, oh, my God.  Nobody believes every line of the Creed.  But in a room of people…for each line of the Creed, somebody believes it.  So we’re covered, right?”  When praying for your enemies is impossible, which it often is, Bolz-Weber recommends asking someone else to pray for your enemies.  We’ve individualized faith too much.  Faith can (and should) be the work of community.

We’re facing an environmental disaster of inconceivable proportions.  Not only do we need communal faith to sustain our hope; we need it to coordinate our various gifts and energies to become a force to stop and reverse climate change.  In a secular, despairing world, congregations can say, “We know a source of healing and transformation!”  And in an overly individualistic world, congregations can function as the Body of Christ, throwing over the 21st century version of temple money-lenders:  our planet-killing habits and the systems that benefit from them.                                                             –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


Write, or Be Written

Here’s what excites me about our climate crisis:  It invites us to change.  “We face a choice that is starkly simple:  We must change or be changed,” writes Wendell Berry.  “If we fail to change for the better, then we will be changed for the worse.”  Okay, so the alternatives are either exciting or terrifying, but still:  Dire circumstances give humans the opportunity to create something new, and this fills me with hope.

Berry’s words remind me of a novelist friend who signs her books, “Write, or be written.”  I don’t think Elissa’s trying to make authors out of her readers; rather, she’s suggesting that everyone has the choice to accept the stories our culture tells about us or create our own.  The climate story our culture has written is dictated by consumption and profit at the expense of the earth and the poor who live close to it.  It’s a story written with highways and billboards, farming practices and diets, the movement of our money and the absence of money.  It’s a story most people don’t question.  We’re too immersed in it.

When I read the stories Jesus told and when I think about his life as a model, I see Jesus asking of us something similar.  We can accept the dominant stories of our culture—“an eye for an eye,” for example, or a morality determined by the law rather than our hearts—or we can participate in a radically different story based on love and humor and subversion.  Jesus doesn’t simply call us to believe in God’s realm; we have to create it, with thoughts and words and deeds.  Write, or be written.  Change or be changed.

These are tumultuous times, and, as every artist knows, creativity comes out of chaos.  As Christians, can we pioneer a new story based on justice and kindness and faith?  Let’s get to work.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew



Changing Church

Ages ago, when I was in the messy middle of coming out bisexual (I felt raw and unformed because I was not the person others had thought me to be; I railed against God for making this world such a difficult place to be honest in) I read a passage my spiritual director Cil Braun had written in a newsletter:  “God is not static.  God is in constant creation, constantly being created.  We are not static, either.  We are in constant creation.”  Yes, I thought; I am being created.  At the time it felt wretched.  Looking back I know coming out was gloriously, divinely formative. 

“Discomfort is the nerve ending of growth,” Jonathan Rowe writes.  Kids know this viscerally when growing pains wrench their legs; they know it emotionally when cascading new experiences—getting dressed themselves, suddenly drawing figures—send them scurrying back to babyhood.  Sometimes Gwyn crawls into my lap and pretends to nurse as though her perpetually changing life is just too much to bear. The writers I work with learn to tolerate terrible discomfort as they take their pieces through revision; they, too, throw occasional tantrums.  Change hurts.

So when the facilitator of the Healthy Small Church Initiative challenged our congregation to change significantly, I thought, Ut-oh!  Individuals may kick and scream their way through growth, but organizations are worse; they dig in their heels.  Prospect Park UMC has been given some provocative statistics, though.  We’re on the decline.  Other churches with worship experiences and communities and ministries much like ours don’t make it.  The facilitator’s message:  Change now or die.

Dire?  Grim?  Perhaps, but I keep coming back to Cil’s words—God is in constant creation.  Staying the same slowly shuts out God’s work.  Changing—consciously, willingly, actively—is one sure way to participate in God’s realm.  Many of the facilitator’s suggestions were exciting:  Talk to the neighborhood, find out what is needed.  Create a vision for ministry.  Shift the church culture to be more inviting and inclusive.  Worship in a way that meets the spiritual needs of those who have yet to come as well as those who are here.  Good stuff.

But getting there is going to hurt.  Can we learn to tolerate this terrible discomfort together?  “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”      –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew 

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