What is more important (than) to search in the wilderness for wellsprings of devotion, for treasures of stillness, for the power of love and care for all (humanity)? What is urgently needed are ways of helping one another in the terrible predicament of here and now by the courage to believe that the word of the Lord endures forever as well as here and now; to cooperate in trying to bring about a resurrection of sensitivity, a revival of conscience; to keep alive the divine sparks in our souls, to nurture openness to the spirit of the Psalms, reverence for the words of the prophets, and faithfulness to the Living God. (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Abraham Heschel, pp. 235-50)
I have set before you life and death, therefore choose life. —Deuteronomy 30:19
I was sitting together with friends recently as one of them, a therapist, began talking about how we live with the pain of our past. She used the phrase; “we have the chance to metabolize our pain into something new.” We can convert that pain into something more life-giving. I had never heard that word metabolize used in that context. After she used it a second time, I asked if the use of the word ‘metabolize’ was now part of a psychological lexicon, to which she said no; but that her clients found the image helpful.
But I loved how she went outside her discipline to shed new light on it; how she used biology to open up psychology.
That’s what I hope we can this Easter season as we listen to voices outside our Christian tradition – shed new light on our own walk in the way of Jesus. Or to put another way – to metabolize the resurrection!
Therefore, we return again today to the work and writing of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Two weeks ago, I introduced this 20th century, Polish born Hasidic rabbi. As a prime contributor to a renewal in Judaism in the late 20th century, he also offered a prophetic voice to issues of justice in his day. His role as a prophet seems especially apt on this celebration of Earth Day. So, while he wrote and marched primarily around the issues of Soviet Jews, Civil Rights and Vietnam, his understanding of the prophetic role of people of faith speaks to the heart of our ‘green spirituality’. His words speak to the heart of our role as environmentalists in an era that either denounces climate change (on the one hand) or that often speaks grandly about the need for change with little behavior to back it up (on the other hand).
The prophets of the Hebrew Bible, first and foremost, reminded God’s people of what they already knew. “Remember” was a common imperative.
For Heschel, one avenue to ‘remembering’ was standing before God’s creation in awe. “The prophet is imbued by the grandeur of divine presence… (He/She) is one who feels fiercely. (p. 63, 62, Essential Writings)
Creation Care emerges from a deep life of spirit, the correlation of our heart with what is breaking the heart of God’s people and creation. I remember years ago being in a conversation in the conservative Central Valley of California with clergy on all sides of the Open and Affirming issue. As opinions were being shared and argued, one more traditional clergy said, ‘Human sexuality is not an issue for us, it is a matter of life and death.’
His implication was that the pro-lgbtq clergy were casually embracing the ‘issue of the day.’ I’ll never forget my colleague, Frank, who instantly leapt up and leaned across the table so his face was inches from the speaker and said, ‘we can disagree with each other on homosexuality, but don’t you ever, ever, suggest that being Open and Affirming is NOT a life and death matter. Because for me, it is.”
I knew Frank was the father of a lesbian daughter, I knew how many pastoral conversations he had with LGBTQ people, their parents or their siblings as they sought to find a life giving way in the in the midst of California’s conservative Bible Belt. Frank was a leader in the Open and Affirming movement, in part, because he ‘felt fiercely.’ Without such embodied truth, our words and actions have little heft.
When it comes to Creation Care, author and spiritual elder, Joanna Macy says it another way – we must reconnect with, and name once again, the truth that this planet is holy. She suggests this awareness may come from one of three sources;
- our grief for our world that contradicts illusions of the separate and isolated self,
- breakthroughs in science,
- or inspirations from the wisdom traditions of native peoples and mystical voices in the major religions . . . that remind us again that our world is a sacred whole in which we have a sacred mission.
Our opportunity in these days, she says is that these three rivers—anguish for our world, scientific breakthroughs, and ancestral teachings—flow together.
From the confluence of these rivers we drink. We awaken to what we once knew (we remember): we are alive in a living Earth, the source of all we are and can achieve.
Feel fiercely, fall in love again, and reawaken. The beauty of having a celebration of Earth Day is not to introduce us to the need for climate advocacy and care. It is to revisit what we know deep in our bones. It is to return to what we so often feel but can’t articulate in words.
In a few minutes, we’ll sing again this canticle to creation by Sara Thomsen (2016)
Canticle of the mourning dove,
Angels in pine and spruce
Fox and the bear and the moose,
Listen to the choir above
Gloria in excelsis deo, Gloria in excelsis
Heron delivers the homily,
Incense fills the air
Cedar boughs in prayer,
And I am lost in reverie
As a survivor of the Holocaust, and as a religious minority, Heschel understood sustaining this fierce feeling is difficult. Dreams are worn down, enthusiasm is deflated, and cynicism takes over. He saw it in the grind of the civil rights movement.
His high view of God comes to bear. “To us of this generation who have walked through the ruins of aborted dreams and desecrated ideals, the question is: How does the road sign read: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Or: To despair is to betray; at the end (God’s) mercy will prevail.” (p.75)
He noted that we faced the twin pressures of callousness and indifference. “To speak about God and remain silent on (Climate Change) is blasphemous… God is filled with compassion, concern and pathos, whereas the tragedy of human beings is their indifference and impartiality; the root of sin is callousness.”
He himself was no stranger to this indifference and callousness. Arnold Eisen notes “…The man who lost almost his entire family in the Holocaust must have been plagued by doubt as to God’s presence in the world. And I think that he was able to speak of it nonetheless because of experiences of God’s presence in his life that contradicted… the massive evidence for God’s absence from the world.
So there wasn’t certainty available, but there was experience and there was faith.” (https://onbeing.org/programs/arnold-eisen-the-opposite-of-good-is-indifference-sep2017/)
I love this – no guarantee of certainty but an appreciation for experience and faith.
Of course, this shaped Heschel’s view of religious faith.
“A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. He is asked to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.”
Let’s let that sink in. We take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. Doing more than we understand in order to understand more than we do.
I think this has practical application to how we maintain a prophetic voice on this Earth Day.
It is to work diligently, but also creatively. To be what Heschel called a “spiritual effrontery.” Creative dissent, he said, is not simply repudiation, it offers a vision.” (p.103)
This is why we need to photographers, the artists, the poets and the dancers and their love of creation. It is why we need gardeners and moviemakers. It is why we value Celtic spirituality and Native American religious life, with their deep connection to the earth. We celebrate Earth Day because our lives need celebration and joy and praise! I remember years ago Tammy and I hosted Norma Wirzba, a noted environmental theologian, for lunch before an Ecumenical Earth Day Event titled, Food, Faith and Earth Day. When Norman asked Tammy if she was coming to the afternoon event, she noted that the spring time was a busy season for teachers, so on this one day of the week when she wasn’t teaching, “I think I’ll celebrate Earth Day with my hands in the garden.” Norman loved it!
It is to pray while recognizing the limits of our prayer language. Last week, I listened to a lovely Irish man, Padraig Ó Tuama, from the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland share about his morning prayer ritual. His daily prayer concluded with the phrase, “I greet God, and I greet the God who is more God than the God I greet.” (https://onbeing.org/programs/padraig-o-tuama-belonging-creates-and-undoes-us-both-mar2017/)
To live with a creative prophetic vision is to do so with the deep trust that the Spirit will give us strength, creativity and understanding for the long and critical journey.
On this Earth Day may we remember the promise of life given to us on Easter; may we cherish the power of all God’s creatures and creations to help us fiercely feel justice into being; and may we face the discouragement that is sure to come with a leap of faith, a leap of hope, and a leap of vision for what can be. Amen.