Ecotones – Rich Transition Zones in the Life of Faith (Winton Boyd) 11.25.18

“This seems to be at the heart of being a progressive Christian today; living in these edge spaces, these transition zones that provide rich opportunity and insight.  It is in these in-between spaces, these ecotones of faith, that we have the opportunity for growth, for evolution, for engagement in a way not possible before, and potentially not possible afterwards.”

Audio version of Ecotones

I’d like to begin by opening a little window into the way some pastors and worship planners think.  Today is a gift.  It is one those less common years in which we have a Sunday after Thanksgiving that is not the beginning of Advent.  We’re not a highly liturgical church, but we do track with both Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter every year.  But, because our lives are shaped by the cultural calendar (Thanksgiving) as well as the liturgical calendar, this is a gift.  We are able to enjoy worship and life together on this Holiday weekend but in an ‘in between’ sort of way.  Not really Thanksgiving, not full-on Christmas.  Not quite holiday time, but not ordinary time either.  Not ‘stuff your face’ Thanksgiving living, but not yet time of a New Year’s Resolution to lose 10 pounds either.  Not harvest music but  just edging into Christmas carols (unless your 105.1 FM).

And of course, as a church, Orchard Ridge is entering an in between time: between settled, stable ministry and an emerging future.  Not yet the end of an era, but not yet a new era.  Today then becomes a good day to give thanks for transitions and to remember how rich they can be in our own life of faith.

A number of years ago we had students from the Crossing – the ecumenical UW Campus ministry we support -come and share stories from one of their immersion trips to Costa Rica.  One of the aspects of their trips that always caught my attention was their time with a farmer seeking to help expand or rebuild critical habitats in his country.  His location introduced me to the concept of a geographical transition zone known as an ecotone.

For most of us, this word, ecotone, is a new even if the concept is not.  It is coined from a combination of eco (ecology) and tone (from the Greek tonos or tension), in other words, a place where ecologies are in tension.

  • For example, it could be a transitional area of vegetation between two different plant communities, such as water and grassland.
  • It could be the zone between alpine mountainous areas and the forests below.
  • It could be a salt marsh or delta.
  • It could be the zone between the rainforests and surrounding agricultural land.

The important aspect about an ecotone is that it has some (but not all) of the characteristics of BOTH bordering biological communities, but also contains species not found in the overlapping communities. In fact, some organisms need this transitional area for courtship, nesting, or foraging for food.

One writer even noted, “Evolution does not occur within a stable ecosystem. Adaptation and growth happen only when the ecosystems come together.”

The Science section of the New York Times lifted up a study of birds known as greenbuls, in Cameroon, as an example that  … “ecotones are evolutionary hotbeds, sites of intense natural selection that can drive the evolution of new forms of organisms…”

“By discovering what may be species-generating regions alongside the rain forest, researchers have provided a new scenario to explain the longstanding mystery of how the world’s many tropical species in rain forests — animals, plants and others — evolved. … It is easy to dismiss these habitats as neither pure rain forest nor pure Savannah,” but if we ignore these transition areas we will miss out on a key source of biodiversity.  []

At the same time, people in other disciplines have seen this ecological occurrence as part of a broader system of understanding – and use the term ‘ecotone’ within literary genres, scientific and artistic disciplines, or other modes of thought.

Indeed, there is a magazine titled, Ecotone( They note that ecotones are ‘a place of danger or opportunity, a testing ground.”  In one issue, they shared stories of how individuals lived in their own ecotones, including:

  • An adopted person who inhabits a transition zone between families and even cultures …(Ecotone Map)
  • A number of people navigating High School social groups
  • A gay woman who wrote – “I move between men and women easily, have a wider perspective maybe.” (Ecotone Map)
  • An immigrant, noting that he is a native of Los Angeles, but the daughter of West Indian parents with family still living on the islands.

One could say that our interior ecotones, and we all have them, are the places within us where we experience this meeting of multiple spiritual biologies.  This internal landscape embraces the good from multiple sources, holds it, and, often when we least expect, transforms our apparent failings and shortcomings into the white combs and sweet honey of new, improved choices and ways to live. So often these are soulful places we cannot name; places of alchemy where recycling, cleansing, and evolution occur; places of grace. (adapted from the writing of Faye Orton Synder in The Geography of Grace)

This invites own reflection on those outward transition periods and realities in our own lives.

  • Living between one career and another and the rich questions of purpose and meaning we explore.
  • Living between relationships with both the grief and the growth that are possible.
  • Stages in our faith as we leave one tradition or one way of thinking but before we’ve settled into a new way whereby we ask significant and valuable questions of belief, commitment and community.

These ‘interior spiritual ecotones’ come with both discomfort and possibility, uncertainty and energy, excitement and melancholy.  Paying attention to how we hold these transitions is a worthy spiritual practice.  Being in a community of faith that doesn’t try to force us out of these transitional realities is a gift.

Our Christian and Biblical tradition is simply loaded with people inhabiting and learning from these social, emotional and cultural ecotones.

  • We see Jesus leaving Galilee and walking through Samaria – a cultural no man’s land between Judea and Galilee – demonstrating God’s grace in a way new to both sides of the divide. Indeed, some of the most poignant stories and teaching parables are set against the backdrop of these in-between zones.  These include the story about the Good Samaritan aiding the wounded traveler, as well as the Samaritan woman at the well who challenges Jesus’ definition of who’s worthy of grace.  His very life – sometimes by choice and sometimes unknowingly, is embodying evolution in religious thought and action.  His willingness to stay in this spiritual ecotone helps his ministry gain traction.
  • We read of Paul traveling to Athens — the belly of the beast for Roman philosophy — where he explores how the way of Jesus can be different and more real than either his own Jewish community or the skeptical and slightly belligerent Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. In his courage, he’s modeling the ways in which the life and teaching of Jesus evolves, adapts and transitions to meet people of all kinds.  His pursuit of this overlapping intellectual space helps the Jesus movement become real to the world beyond Galilee.
  • We read of Philip — thinking he knew the faith — as he literally walked into a Eunuch from Ethiopia. As a Eunuch he was an anomaly of a man in so many ways; sexually, culturally, and religiously.  With him Philip learns that the gospel of love and grace is actually larger than he previously knew.  In this encounter are the seedbeds of change as Christianity will one day live in harmony with religious impulses of all kinds.

This seems to be at the heart of being a progressive Christian today; living in these edge spaces, these transition zones that provide rich opportunity and insight.  It is in these in-between spaces, these ecotones of faith, that we have the opportunity for growth, for evolution, for engagement in a way not possible before, and potentially not possible afterwards.  However, they do call for a certain kind of patience, an element of trust.


One of the great theologians of the 20th century was – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit priest.  Part of his genius was the way he allowed theology and paleontology to inform each other.  His abandonment of a literal interpretation of Genesis in favor of allegorical and theological meanings in the 1920’s put him in the cross hairs of the Roman Catholic Church.  Undaunted, he spent a lifetime living in theological and biological ecotones; recognizing that his love of science and his faith in God both grew and thrived because of his wrestling with the both.  He paved the way for other leading minds and devoted hearts that inform our progressive tradition; people such as Thomas Merton, Matthew Fox, Annie Dillard and Richard Rohr, to name just a few.  Today, the Episcopal Church celebrates April 10th as his feast day.


Amidst all of his writing, digging and dialogue, he was a poet as well.  I’d like to end with is poem “Patient Trust,” which reminds us of the good work God being done at each stage of our transitions.  We’ll follow the poem with a bit of silence for you to silently name the edge spaces in which you are currently living; and for you to offer a prayer for guidance in your own life.


Patient Trust

Above all, trust in the slow work of the Spirit.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—

and that it may take a very long time. 

And so I think it is with you,

Your ideas mature gradually—let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time…will make of you tomorrow. 

Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be.

Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you,

and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. 

– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ




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