On Love and Sheep

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How wonderful it is that Spring has finally decided to slowly show its face in Boston again! While some of us are still waiting for that perfect spring day of 65 degrees and sunshine, we cannot help but notice that in the course of the last week the grass has become a bit greener and the trees seem to have finally awoken from their winter slumber, putting forth buds and flowers. As I left my office yesterday afternoon, groups of students on blankets and playing frisbee dotted the BU Beach here behind the chapel – a sure sign that spring must be on its way. This year’s winter felt especially long, but the promise of warmer days and returning greenery has boosted my mood, and maybe yours as well.

            It’s amazing how deeply we feel our connection to the world around us, most of the time unconsciously. You may remember an especially rainy or cold day from the last few weeks when you found it difficult to get out of the warmth of your bed in the morning. Or how upon viewing a sunset with especially vibrant hues of pink, purple, and blue you stood amazed for a moment and the grandeur of the sky before you. Or maybe event sitting beside a lake or pond finding calm as you heard the shallow waves lap upon the shoreline. Deep within ourselves we find a rootedness with nature that can affect how we view the world, ourselves, and others. Indeed, we are in relationship with our environment.

            A few weeks ago, on one of those unseasonably cold Monday afternoons, a friend asked me to come to her class on Spiritual Companioning to talk with her students about nature and environmentalism as a spiritual practice. Prepared with a copy of Nature as Spiritual Practiceby Steven Chase, I invited the students to take part in an exercise entitled “Imprinted by Nature.” The activity encouraged them to reflect upon the location they grew up in – the natural surroundings, sounds, and smells and how they engaged with nature in that location. And then they were asked to think about how it compares to the area they live in now. After some time for reflection, most of the students recalled a great fondness for the area they grew up in. They described aspects of the natural world that calmed them, that had special memories attached to them, or that highlighted relationships with other people, such as grandparents or childhood friends. In contrast, when they thought of their current location, they often found it difficult to feel that same sense of connection to the world around them. The activity’s intent was to enable the students to realize the way that we have been shaped by the world around us. The truth is, the environments we grow up in create a sort of imprint on us when we are young that tacitly resides within each one of us, but that can be stirred up at any time just by taking a few moments to sit and reflect or by even encountering similar moments in our lives today.

            As a spiritual practice, the reflection on our ties with nature also connects us with the Divine. Theologians throughout the history of Christianity have commented on the ways in which nature facilitates our relationship with God. John Wesley encouraged Christians to experience the “immensity and magnificence, the power and wisdom of (Earth’s) Creator” by reading nature as a sacred text, a “mighty volume.” Martin Luther’s emphasis on the nature of God being both transcendent and immanent, “present in, through, and under all things” provides us with glimpses of the divine through our interaction with the world around us. Even Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan theologian, declared that “Nature is God’s greatest evangelist.” We may also reflect on the words of the Psalmist, who in Psalm 23 depicts our encounter with God as a Shepherd who watches over us in green pastures with calm waters. Our full humanity can be expressed in connecting ourselves to the world around us and understanding that we, too, are a part of the divine creation of the earth.

            Our connections with nature and the divine also lead us to think about the ways we are in relationship with others in our communities. People, after all, are a part of the environment. We interact with each other in the context of our environments. Our environments impact how we are able to acquire food, where we can live, and even our mental health. We live in and associate ourselves with communities that determine what values we share and uphold, which can subsequently shape our attitude toward the environment. When there is a disconnect in any of these relationships, we can lose sight of the divine presence in the world, and injustice can become prevalent.

            Today, we celebrate Earth Day. This national observance began 48 years ago in 1970. Grassroots activists, including numerous college students, were concerned with the ways the environment’s quality was being degraded. In response, they hosted teach-ins, protests, and other demonstrations to get their message across – the kind of activism which has become more familiar to us over the past year. The result was a general push in society to pay more attention to the ways in which human action harms the planet. The feeling and meaning of Earth Day has continued to grow as the environmental challenges we face have changed over time. Thankfully, churches have increased their involvement in the day, becoming value-laden locations of exploring the ways humans need to see themselves as part of creation rather than as separate from it.

Over the past week, Marsh Chapel hosted a variety of events to encourage the student body and the surrounding community to think about the ways in which we relate to the Earth.  How human beings have harmed the earth, how we can adapt and try to heal some of the harm committed, and also see they affects that the harm has on members of our human community. It was a week of varied emotions. On Tuesday, I stood out on Marsh plaza with tiny terra cotta pots, paints, and tiny succulent plants for students to decorate their own succulent to take home – an event we called “Planting in the Spirit.” I was pleasantly surprised by the reactions of students upon finding out that they could take home their own tiny succulent for free – “You’re kidding me! They’re so cute! This is seriously bringing me so much joy right now!” (I may have removed some creative expletives the original speakers used). These grand positive reactions all from a tiny plant that they could use to green up their dorm or apartment. It gave them a sense of connection to the rest of creation just by having another living organism to care for and appreciate.

In contrast, last Sunday afternoon, we heard the concerns of students and community members alike as to whether Boston has entered into the emergency stage of global Climate Change at our conversation “Are We Climate Ready?.” It was fruitful exchange, but a sobering reminder that there is still a great amount of work we must do in order to ensure a sustainable future for our planet. Throughout the week’s events, we strove to foster conversations and actions for folks to think about the ways they have become disconnected from the world around them and how they can remedy that disconnection.

            But perhaps, in light of the theme Christian love found within today’s lectionary readings, the most meaningful of the events was a panel discussion on Thursday night. The panel was entitled “Is it Bougie to be Green?: The Gentrification of the Eco-Movement.” We co-hosted with it thEcology, the environmental student group at the School of Theology. For those of you unfamiliar with the slang term “bougie” it ultimately derives from the French word “bourgeousie” which became famous in the works of Karl Marx for identifying the upper class. Today, the term “bougie” is commonly used to mean “aspiring to be a higher class than one is.” The idea behind this panel was to bring together people of faith from different backgrounds to discuss how socioeconomic factors can hinder involvement in environmentalism, and to challenge the depiction of environmentalism as a white, middle-class issue or concern. Our panelists were all leaders within their faith communities who believe that environmental justice issues should be foundational and intersectional with other justice issues prevalent in our communities – economic justice, racial justice, gender equality, and others. The panelists spoke passionately about how their experiences within the local church and their communities had informed their understanding of environmental justice issues and how to handle them from a faith perspective. They cited that the mainstreaming or trend-setting aspects of environmentalism often make it difficult for some people, especially low-income people, to have access to environmental practices due to the influence of commodification. They pointed out how particular aspects of environmentalism require you to have a certain amount of expendable income in order to participate – in buying organic foods, having access to greenspaces where you live, or investing in sustainable energy. And most importantly, how low-income communities often feel the greatest impacts of environmental degradation but have little means to act against it and are frequently forgotten by mainstream activism.

            What became clear in this panel discussion was that environmentalism should not be co-opted by greenwashed idealism that neglects to recognize the many layers of injustice that exist due to the nature of our economic systems. While remembering our connection to the natural world absolutely has value in helping to shape our appreciation for it and can help us encounter the divine, our love and care for the Earth and everything in it cannot stop there. We have to be aware of the ways that climate change and other environmental issues are impacting communities, and how those communities are finding ways to respond within themselves. The reality is effects of climate change are already making climate refugees – people who are being displaced from their homes because of rising sea levels, extreme weather, and lack of access to potable water. And these people are disproportionately impoverished – living along coastlines, steep inclines, and flood plains. Or they reside in island nations who are not so slowly losing their home country as encroaching sea levels make it impossible for people to stay. Pacific Islanders, Alaskans, and others have already begun to feel these effects have to relocate. The impacts are not somewhere out in the future, but here already, today. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated at a meeting about climate change in Indonesia, “The issue of equity is crucial. Climate affects us all, but does not affect us all equally.”

            As Christians we must stand to express Christ’s love fully into the world. In 1 John we are reminded that our task in the world to emulate the love that Christ showed through “laying down his life for us.” The epistle echoes the sentiment of what the Good Shepherd does in John chapter 10 – “the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” He is not forced into this self-sacrifice, but instead, of his own volition, chooses to give up his life in order to protect his flock. His sacrifice is not for power or glory or payment, but for the good of the flock whom he knows and loves. A shepherd, as a leader of a flock, does not just care about himself or herself, but must be invested in the lives of all of the members of his/her flock. We, as Christians, as followers of Christ, are the sheep in this metaphor, but as sheep we learn from the shepherd how to be in the world.

 The writer of 1 John explicates the description of the role of the Christian further: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” The Christian cannot simply pay lip service to love, but instead must be willing to act out the words that he/she professes in order to fully enact God’s love in the world. God’s command to love one another is to love to the point of enabling the flourishing of other, even if it means making sacrifices for the self. We must first recognize the power that we hold which privileges us within society and then, instead of using that power over others, surrendering that power for the sake of others. We may be sheep, but we are sheep who are bathed in the love of God and expected to convey that love into the world.

In her recent book, Love in a Time of Climate Change, United Methodist elder, author, and activist Sharon Delgado reminds Christians that it is not only a sense of ethical responsibility that should drive us to take care of God’s creation, but also because we can see the value expressed in it. She states:

“A strong sense of the value of creation provides a foundation for actions to preserve, defend, and renew the natural world…creation has value for us because we love it and because through it we experience the divine. We protect and defend creation not because we should, but because we care. This sense of caring includes the human family and extends to all parts of creation.” (Delgado, 185)

We need to let our love of creation, grounded in those deep-rooted connections we have with our environment, guide us into respect for the Earth that leads to love and care. Delgado is right in pointing out that we must include both our human and our earth family in all senses of our caring. By enabling God’s love to flow through us, we can see hope in the face of daunting challenges.

            In light of these environmental challenges we now face, we must utilize our knowledge of God’s love to enact justice in the world. If we are fortunate to have the privilege of comfortable existence and can take on some of the more mainstream attitudes of environmental action, such as recycling, composting, or decreasing our carbon footprints, then we must also bring attention to the ways that communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities face the brunt of environmental injustices. We must find ways to be connected to these communities – to know our human neighbors as well as our environmental neighbors – in order to offer help in the most effective ways possible. We must speak truth to power when it comes to corporate practices that focus on making the maximum amount of profit at the expense of the livelihood of the most vulnerable within our society.  As we are led by the Good Shepherd who loves and comforts us, so too we must turn to the rest of our flock and find ways to express that love and care in the world around us.

As our antiphon stated today, “The Good Shepherd comes that we may have life and may have it abundantly.” Let us ensure that all have life abundantly.

Amen.

-Jessica Ann Hittinger Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

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