Celebrate the Land: A Sacred Trust

The Psalm we just heard is a song in praise of the amazing creation upon which we share life, a world that provides us with everything we need.  We are 93 million miles from the sun, which is exactly the right distance to give us the solar energy and light that provides for all living things.  Our globe spins at a rate where we have a length of day and night that results in the balance we need-between dark and light, heat and coolness.  We have air with just the right amount of oxygen for all plants and animals. We have a water cycle that moves water from sky to soil to rivers and back to the sky.  We have an incredible array of biological beings, from viruses and bacteria to whales.

We have reason and skill to protect and preserve this amazing world. And yet, we are not preserving and protecting this world… thus we are not fulfilling our role in God’s as proclaimed in the ancient stories of creation… we’ve lost our way.

Profits have become more important than healthy ponds.  A need for oil have overcome our concern for clean air.Our desire for smooth paved roads has led to ditches full of litter…

Barry Commoner, a noted environmentalist offers four simple laws of ecology:

  • Everything is connected to everything else.
  • Everything must go somewhere.
  • Nature knows best.
  • And, environmentally speaking, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

45 years ago Commoner urged those who would listen to consider these laws as we faced the loss of wild lands and habitat, severely damaged soils, poisoned water bodies and choked atmospheres. He emphasized that wherever we exploit nature we convert resources from useful to useless, damaged goods.

And yet we continued to exploit the earth, plunder its resources and think that we could continue to take and take and take without consequence…

Yes, new laws were passed. Businesses and local governments made significant changes. We saw rivers, lakes, drinking water and air quality improvements. Open dumps turned into sanitary landfills. But, we have continued to consume resources beyond what our earth can sustainably provide and today’s environmental problems are more daunting and complex than those we faced in the sixties and seventies.

We have come to a new place where we find ourselves at a tipping point of peak everything- climate destruction, excessive habitat degradation, species extinction and resource exhaustion.

We are finding that parts of our world are falling silent. Vibrant ecosystems have become so compromised that their particular sounds have been reduced to a whisper, where we can only hear the hollow echo of our mechanical presence. We have become detached, unaware of how our lives intersect with our environment and the lives other people around the world.

Wendell Berry, an author, poet, conservationist and person of faith, writes, “when we desecrate the land we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.”

On this, the day following a celebration of 150 years of confederation – a confederation that pushed the first people of this land into smaller and smaller spaces, and built railways that would span prairie and river valley, I continue to wrestle with what I can do in respect to these challenging issues?

A starting place for me involves considering the stories we tell of the creation of the world – stories that offer a sense of awe and grandeur.

A few thousand years ago, in to two locations on opposite sides on the world, two people offered us lasting stories using art and poetry.

In the heart of a sandstone canyon, the traditional territories of the Navajo Nation (what is now known as Utah) an unknown artist daubed pigment against the stone again and again, until a slender figure emerged in radiant auburn hues. Soon other figures emerged to join the first. Finally, the artist completed the work that portrays a host of figures, human and animal, representing the creation of the world in a visual story that contains the essence of language, myth and primal song, a song of the origins of the world.

Thousands of miles away, at nearly the same time, an old man on the Greek island of Patmos, paused, looking at the drying ink on the parchment before him. The words he had just penned stated, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word, was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” This song of creation is full of wonder and amazement at the notion that God has been speaking from all eternity through everything that exists.

In these and other stories of creation, creative offerings of story, art, poetry and song – the creation of the world is portrayed in such a manner as the life giving force of God imbues everything that is created.

This world is full of beauty and balance, wherever our actions have not spoiled it. And again we come to the question—what can we do individually and collectively to address the problems we have created?

We can recognize the environmental damage and social realities around us and develop a broad “creation care” approach to our everyday actions and to our worship. We can reduce the noise of our existence and learn to better listen to the continuing song of our creation. And I think we can start this process by reconnecting to the very land where we live and worship.

Wendell Berry says that “the question is not how to save the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods.”

In the past year I have found two very similar approaches to learning more about creation care. One is called contemplative ecology and the other watershed discipleship. Both of these start with the idea of “re-placement”; a process where we make a covenant with the land that lies directly under our feet. This covenant calls us to relearn our “place” by coming to know our watershed.

We all live within a watershed – or as Diana Butler Bass would call it a riparian place. A watershed or riparian space is that area of land, within which their common watercourse links all living things.

You now have the scientific definition, but there is so much more we all need to know. Watersheds underlie all human endeavours and every living thing in them is connected and dependent upon the health of the whole.

We are forever linked, really intertwined, with every drop of water and every living being in our watershed. So, we first learn the science of our watershed. This involves knowing each and every water body-ditches, creeks, rivers, lakes and underground aquifers.

We learn about everything that people do on the land, as we look at urban, industrial, agricultural, recreational, and forestland activities. We look at animal and fish habitats. We find where damage has occurred and where pristine waters and land must be protected. Then we plan for the future care of our watershed.

Through this process we can come to recognize the great economy of nature and come to understand the immense value of clean air, water and soil to our daily lives. Economists call these values environmental services, and beyond the economic benefits, we reap immense personal and public health benefits from a clean ecosystem.

But we need to do much more than know enough to sound like scientists – we must live it. We must forge a spiritual connection with the land and water and the inhabitants of both… for more we know about our surroundings the more we can involve ourselves in their preservation.

A Senegalese environmentalist, Baba Dioum offers this thought.

We won’t save places we do not love;

we can’t love places we do not know;

and we don’t know places we haven’t learned.

When we re-connect, re-place ourselves in our natural surroundings, we no longer ignore, or grab nature as if it were something to dominate or to own. Instead, we know our place within it. We feel gratitude for it. When we listen to nature speak we find new ways to discern the divine presence in what we previously may have seen so dimly.

Gary Snyder wrote, “This living flowing land / is all there is forever / We are it. It sings through us.” Let us listen for that song.

In a few moments I am going to share with you the images sent to me as part of “Celebrate the Land.”  As you view the images and listen to the music – sing along if you wish – I invite you to ponder this bit of wisdom from the Elders of the First Peoples of this land… wisdom that tells us that the trees hold hands through their roots in the darkness of Earth that is deeper than soil, deeper than human culture… and imagine how the world might be if we let forth a justice that brought forth life – as we held hands as do the trees…  You can view the video here.

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