Practice

“And after Jesus had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain alone to pray.” (Matthew 14: 23)

“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace: the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55: 12)

In preparation for my ordination tomorrow to the priesthood, I went this week, in imitatione Christi, alone to the mountains to pray. I climbed Mt. Adams and Mt. Jefferson in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. I was welcomed by fierce wind, fog and rain that turned to glorious sun, and still fierce wind. The spirit of God is strong on those mountains.

As part of my preparation and prayer, I immersed myself in the Eucharistic prayers of the Episcopal Church – the prayers in which a priest leads a congregation into the mystery of the body and blood of Christ.

The mountains and Arvin were the congregation, bursting with song. A rye cracker was the bread, held in place by the bones of the earth. Water became wine. The Spirit was present.

It is all part of the practice. Prayer in the mountains.

IMG_0457


“Start a Church”

Throughout my years at seminary, when I listened most deeply (i.e., prayed) about what I was supposed to do as a priest, I would hear something like this: “Start a Church.” But I didn’t want to start a church! That was too messy, too complicated, too costly, much too

Lady slipper & Princess pine

Lady slipper & Princess pine

hard. So I would jot down the words on a scrap of paper, stash them in a file, and forget about it.

But all the time, Kelly and I were trying to buy a little (well, not so little – 106 acres) piece of land in Canterbury NH, so I could have the woodlot I have always wanted and Kelly could design a house. I had thought that we might be able to create a little spiritual retreat center there, too, but that was about it. Until we actually bought the land.

Last October, when the landowner finally lowered the price to a reasonable level and –  thanks to a generous supporter – we were able to buy it, I suddenly realized what that voice had been telling me all along. I was supposed to start a church – but a completely

Turkey eggs

Turkey eggs

different kind of church. I was to create a “woods-church.” Or as I am now calling it “The Church of the Woods.”

The basic idea is simple: The woods (and any other patch of Earth) can be a holy sanctuary for the contemplation of God, for listening to what the Spirit has to say to us, for understanding and loving the beauty of the world that surrounds us, and – above all – to open ourselves to be fed, to be transformed by “God.”

Yes, we will have buildings also, because there are cold days and snowstorms, rainstorms, blackflies, mosquitoes, and many other times when it isn’t comfortable to be outside for long. And well-designed buildings, of course, also are places for the contemplation, inspiration, and mystery of God.

Mama turkey

Mama turkey

But at The Church of the Woods, “the church” will be the woods. The main building will be the meeting house, but it won’t be “the church.”  The primary place of prayer – of spiritual encounter – will be outdoors, with the snowstorms, the blackflies, the moose and the turkey, the saplings and the birds. Right along with “every creeping thing that creepeth upon the Earth” (King James Bible, Genesis 7:14).

There is a huge amount of work to do to make this happen – I wasn’t wrong about that. But it is beginning! Stay tuned — I look forward to welcoming you to The Church of the Woods someday soon.

In the meantime, here are a few photos of the springtime congregation.

Lots of moose!

Lots of moose!

 

 

 


He Trusted in God

My mother had died suddenly two months earlier, prey to a creeping invisible cancer discovered only when it was too late. I was depressed, in pain from her death and exhausted from building and running the Northern Forest Center.

I knew I would destroy the Center if I stayed too long – I needed to quit but was afraid of what would happen to the organization without me – and especially of what would happen to me if I relinquished my role. Who would I be if I let go? What would I do?

Driving to work one lovely summer morning, I suddenly felt the urge to play Handel’s Messiah on the car CD player. Why? In July? Why did I even have the disks in the car? I don’t know. But I did. I opened the box, looked at the disks and for some unknown reason, chose the second rather than the first. The moment the 5th track –  He Trusted in God – began to play, I burst into tears. I sobbed the rest of the way to work. Something in that music and those words – he trusted in God – had touched my deepest soul.

The text, I later learned – once I made it to Divinity School and actually read the Bible – is from Psalm 22: “He trusted in God, let him deliver him, if he delight in him.” I had long loved the music but having read neither the Psalms nor the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and death, I was only vaguely aware that this is the psalm, according to both Mark and Matthew, that Jesus speaks aloud in his final moment on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And with which the priests and scribes mock him, saying, “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to…”

For me, as for Jesus, those simple and utterly beautiful words were enough to allow me to let go, to surrender, to trust, to put myself in other Hands.

Where do you turn when you need to trust?

In memory of my mother who died six years ago today.


Jeremiah lives!

I first met Jeremiah, the Biblical prophet, when I was a college student studying abroad. I didn’t literally meet him, of course, since he lived 2,700 years ago, but I had an encounter with him on a field trip to the ancient abbey at Moissac in the south of France.

Captivated there by Jeremiah’s penetrating eyes embedded in a sinuous carving of stone, I brought him home in the form of a poster purchased from the abbey gift shop. Though I wasn’t a church goer and didn’t know who Jeremiah was, I carried that poster with me, wrinkled and crumpled by age, for 35 years. In all that time, Jeremiah remained as silent as the stone he was carved from.

Until three years ago. By then, I was a student at Yale Divinity School, having left family, friends, community, and 25-year career in conservation to learn about my new-found Christian faith. I wondered how it was relevant to climate change and why I’d been called to become an Episcopal priest in order to be a more effective advocate for Earth and her people.

In my first biblical studies class, I finally read the book of Jeremiah and knew why I had been carrying him with me for all those years. Jeremiah spoke to me, as he had spoken to so many over the centuries, about human greed and foolishness, about failure to help the poor, about laying waste to the land, and about orienting our lives toward the wrong things. In my worries about our world, and especially about the coming disaster of climate change, I heard Jeremiah speaking as profoundly today as he did nearly 3,000 years ago.

Jeremiah was not a popular man and the message he carried to ancient Israel was not a popular message. In brief, Jeremiah prophesied that destruction was coming in the form of the great army of Babylon because Israel no longer adhered to the central ethical command to love God and neighbor. As the book of Jeremiah says, “But this people has a stubborn and rebellious heart…they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.”
Telling of the destruction to come, Jeremiah gives voice to his grief: “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent… Disaster overtakes disaster, the whole land is laid waste… I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void… I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert…”

Oh, how my own heart pounded in resonance as I read this! Jeremiah was speaking of an entirely different culture and time and, at the same time, is speaking profound truth for our own times. We, too, in our quest to be fat and sleek, have caused a great scourge to sweep down. Not the army of Babylon but that of climate change – a transformation of the atmosphere and oceans that hold and support all life – and whose coming will harm the poor most of all.As this summer’s drought throughout so much of the fruited plains of America may have foreshadowed, we, too, fear that the fruitful land may become a desert.

As in Jeremiah’s time, it is easier to ignore the threat, to go about our lives pretending it doesn’t exist. Certainly this is what is happening in current political and economic debates. But Jeremiah voices the cost of such willful ignorance: Anguish! Woe! Destruction! And the only response: Repent! Yes, repent! To repent means to reorient one’s life toward the source of creation, love, and hope rather than toward self-interest, greed, and power. This, in the end, is what Jeremiah tells us. That even as we do stupid things, even as through our greed and short-sightedness we harm others and ourselves and cause destruction to Earth, even as we suffer, there is hope, in God – by whatever name, form, and faith – and within the human heart.

For me as an environmentalist concerned about Earth and her people, amidst anxieties about human failings, this is the final message that Jeremiah, ensconced in that poster still pinned to my wall, came to deliver: The world is in trouble. People have caused it.Yet, there is hope.

 

This was first published in the Concord (NH) Monitor.


Despair and Beauty

One of the challenges I have faced as an environmental activist is that of despair – of feeling that no matter how successful I am, the best I can do is slightly slow the rate at which we are destroying the abundance and diversity of our planet. Such despair can be debilitating, and from it arises other feelings – of grief, frustration, and anger – each of which can be paralyzing and destructive if not transformed into constructive emotion and action.

As I became aware of the extent of these feelings within me, and of their corrosive nature, I sought ways to remind myself that the world was not, in fact, going completely down the rat hole.

One of the practices I developed was to look for beauty around me, everywhere. As I rode the bus to and from work, I’d look out the window on a quest for beauty – in the sunrise, in the clouds, in the birds flying by, in the graceful shape of trees blowing in the wind, in the face and form of a woman, in the sunlight reflecting off the skyscrapers, in the rippling of the water – which even if polluted was still beautiful.

http://youtu.be/cLXKDxIFBMg

A theology of beauty, I came to understand, is a direct way to approach the divine. At that time, I didn’t think of this as a spiritual practice, but of course that’s what it was. In times of despair, one can do worse – much worse – than be a seeker of beauty.


Who are you?

Can you imagine growing up as a duck who didn’t know that there was such a thing as a pond? Not knowing about swimming, diving, and splashing? Not knowing who you most truly are? Actually, a lot of us grow up not really knowing who we are, where we belong, what we are on this earth for. Because of the complexity of human life, it sometimes takes a long time – even a full lifetime – to find these answers. This is one of the greatest tasks of spiritual development – to discover our truest selves.

The path to doing this is a path to God. Psalm 139 expresses the joy of someone who realizes that God already knows each of us, in our own particularity and peculiarity, and loves us as we are. (It also expresses the anger we feel when others use the name of God for evil rather than for good!) These ducks experience sheer joy when they realize they were made to swim and splash in a pond.

For humans, the pond we swim in is God. We can experience that kind of joy when we find our way to God. What do you already know about who you most truly are?


Murmuration of Starlings

For the first 53 years of my life, even before I walked into a church for the first time, nature was the path that allowed me to experience the divine directly. This “murmuration” of starlings illustrates the power of spiritual experience in the natural world. Natural theology is a branch of Christian theology that explores how the natural world allows us to experience and understand God. Through nature, we can use our five senses to realize that there is something beyond all that we can see, taste, hear, smell, and touch.

Watching this flock of birds swoop, form, flock, twist, and disappear, I can’t help but ask some of the deepest and oldest questions of theology: Why is there order in the universe and not just a mess of random particles? Why is there a universe at all? Why are there birds and water and people? And finally, where does such beauty come from?

Originally posted on Sunshine Faith


Silence – God’s first language

It was still pitch black outside when I woke up the morning after Hurricane Sandy had swept over us. The electricity had gone out the evening before. We remained in full darkness. I had woken once in the middle of the night to hear…nothing. The howling, tearing, threatening wind had gone. Away.

Silence

When I sat on my cushion for morning prayers,  I couldn’t see anything. I listened intently, but I couldn’t hear. Anything. The world had gone silent. The wind was gone. The rustling leaves were gone. The usual gurgle and hum of the refrigerator behind me was gone. All was still.

It isn’t easy to find silence in our hyper world. It is even harder to be silence. If there is one thing I urge you to do in your quest for God, it is to seek silence. Simply to listen.

Silence is God’s first language

Pause, listen to the silence, listen to God.

 

Originally posted at Sunshine Faith

 


God’s delight

The November issue of The Atlantic contains a wonderful piece written by John Muir, excerpted from a longer article published in 1897:

“The forests of America, however slighted by man, must have been a great delight to God; for they were the best he ever planted. The whole continent was a garden, and from the beginning it seemed to be favored above all the other wild parks and gardens of the globe…These forests were composed of about five hundred species of trees, all of them useful to man, ranging in size from twenty-five feet in height and less than one foot in diameter at the ground to four hundred feet in height and more than twenty feet in diameter – lordly monarchs proclaiming the gospel of beauty like apostles…

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones…It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these western woods – trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ’s time – and long before that – God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools…”   John Muir, “The American Forests,” The Atlantic, August 1897

There is a much to hear in this paean to the great forests of America – and too much that has not changed. Many of the forests Muir loved have been felled and we struggle still with fools and foolishness regarding trees, forests, and Earth.

I would particularly like to point out, though, Muir’s unabashed use of Christian language and imagery to make his case. Muir is using what was, and for most Americans still is, accepted and understood language of sacredness to express his love of these great forests. Unabashed, he speaks of God and of Christ to communicate his own anger and frustration and to evoke in his readers a sense that to destroy these forests is to desecrate a sacred place.

Muir’s use of religious language – and his deep personal belief that sacred places are created by God – was instrumental in his ability to communicate with a wide cross-section of Americans and to create the 20th century conservation movement. In the intervening hundred years, America’s environmental advocates have largely lost our comfort and fluency with such language and belief. As we have forgotten how to speak, we have lost the ability to speak to a large part of America in ways they can hear.

How can we regain this lost language on behalf of Earth? How can we learn to speak to those who don’t hear or understand technocratic enviro-speak? How can we re-create within ourselves an understanding and practice of Earth as holy? How can we re-learn that way of Christ that so moved John Muir?


Welcome!

I encourage you to poke around, read from stories and reflections about how I came to be here and what I’m doing, and to add your own thoughts, experiences, and questions.

In a time when global climate change is such an extraordinary threat to the flourishing of people and other forms of life, I dream this will be a place where people can explore and express their deepest yearning – to live in harmony with each other and with all of Earth – and to find help in transforming themselves and the world.

This site is starting as a way for me to give to the world what I have to give. In my wildest dreams, though, it is becoming a place for everyone who believes that conserving Earth and helping her people is much too important to leave only to “the environmentalists.”

The environmental movement has forgotten that it grows, at its roots, from a religious impulse. We must recover that religious impulse to be able to live in harmony with Earth and each other.  Kairos Earth will explore how this recovery might happen. Of course we need better science, technology, economics, and so on, to respond to climate change and other human-fueled harms. But alone, these technocratic tools are insufficient. We need also to transform our fundamental way of being – to be rooted in awestruck wonder and reverence, in gratitude for all we are given, in comprehension of our own puniness and failings, and in recognition of our ultimate dependence on the one Source from which all flows.

I write as a Christian exploring what my own new-found faith has to give to this work. I welcome people of all faiths, and of no faith or tradition, who are drawn by the idea that God – by whatever name, faith, and form – is essential to transforming us and the world.

Welcome!