This season marks my second spring in Oregon. I’m not sure why, but of all the things people told me when I moved here, no one thought to mention that Oregon has what is possibly the most beautiful spring of any place on earth. I’ve lived a lot of places, but I have never seen anything like the the trees that blossom here in waves of color week after week: puffs of cherry blossoms announce the start of the season, drifting to the ground like pink snow just as the dogwoods and apples and lilacs begin to bloom. As we have gathered online this season, I have been asking young and old alike what it is that is nourishing your soul during this strangely lonely season. Invariably, people name this blossoming spring: the one that is daily showering us with sweetness and beauty even as we grieve for the sickness and suffering that have brought so much uncertainty and disruption to our days. This season, we are being stretched and challenged to simultaneously hold both of these realities in our hearts and in our minds: the extravagant beauty of this world, as well as its heartbreaking sorrow.
Here in the midst of this particular spring, and on the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day observance, I have been thinking about the writer E.B. White who, in 1969, uttered these memorable words: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
Hard to plan the day, indeed! As we strive to observe Earth Day as best we can this year — in the midst of a pandemic; in the midst of ongoing deforestation, unprecedented wildfires, and ecosystem collapse — I’d like to claim E.B. White as a kindred spirit and wise teacher. I have heard that White himself was skeptical about organized religion. But I believe that he perfectly articulates our dilemma, and our call, as people of faith. On the one hand, we must always root our prayers and our daily spiritual practice in gratefulness. Throughout the ages, this has been the core discipline that opens our hearts to the gift of life while restoring us to intimate relationship with the Giver who is the very Source of life itself.
At the same time, we are called, always, to act on behalf of the earth itself, and on behalf of the earth’s most vulnerable. In particular, we are called to act on behalf of those creatures and places that have no vote and no voice.
It seems to me that we often draw upon our faith traditions when it comes time to savor and give thanks for the gifts of this world. But when it comes time to rush out the door and into action, into the saving side of the equation, it can be tempting to leave our faith practices behind as we join the secular efforts to save the earth and all her creatures. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the saving tools of the scientific and secular world. We absolutely need those gifts and tools for the work ahead.
But I am pretty sure that as people of faith, we have an additional gift to offer in our collective effort to save this world that we so love. A gift that is particularly necessary now that the work ahead seems so overwhelming. As communities of faith, the gift we are called to offer is this: the conviction that we are not alone in this. We are not ever alone.
No matter how dire the predictions of climate catastrophe, no matter how daunting the odds of success, we are called to walk into the world, and to work in the world, as channels for the divine presence. In our hearts, in our minds, in our bodies, we are called to be no less than open channels for the presence of God that is always offering to pour itself into the world through us.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Of course, it is absolutely possible to go out and care for the earth in all kinds of saving and beautiful ways without ever intentionally invoking the presence and power of God. Beautiful people are doing this every day! But I am pretty sure that this world needs everything we’ve got, every practice we have honed over millennia of spiritual inquiry. The world needs the sacred gift we have to offer: a treasure chest of spiritual practices that open us to the very source of life itself. Practices that open us to the divine source of strength, courage, discernment, and yes, even power — the very power of God that is always offering to work with us and through us on behalf of the world.
I think that’s a pretty great tool we have in our collective tool box. But here’s the catch. (There’s always a small catch, right?) As far as I can tell, this divine presence and power is so gentle, so respectful, that God will not override our free will. For better or worse, God will not force God’s self on us even for our own good. Looking around at the world, it seems pretty clear that God will not override our human decisions, even the most terrible ones. Instead, God seems to stand ready, awaiting our invitation to co-create with us a more humane, more just, more sustainable life on this planet.
And if this is true, then our intentional spiritual practice makes all the difference. We can invite the presence and power of God to guide and strengthen us as we set out on behalf of the earth. When we choose to stand in the midst of our pain and fear, when we choose to stand in the midst of our collective global cry of lament and let our hearts break open to God — in that moment, we become the doorway through which the divine presence rushes in to guide and strengthen us. In this moment of openness, God rushes in to work through us in whatever conditions and in whatever broken places on all the earth we find ourselves. And I believe that our willingness to practice this — to practice inviting in the presence and power of God — just might give us the courage and the strength we need to act, together, in the face of overwhelming obstacles.
So I want to offer you a practice for this season in which the earth itself is calling both for our attention and our care. I invite you to close your eyes and begin to notice your breathing. And as you return to your body, to your breath, see if you can invite God to be with you in this time of prayer. Whatever that divine presence looks like or feels like to you, welcome it now. Welcome the One who is always as near to you as your next breath. The One who knows the unique gifts that you alone have to offer the world.
And now, see if you can picture the earth itself, the earth that needs you. Maybe you can see the planet as it looks from outer space: so blue, so beautiful. And now, ask the Spirit to show you a particular part of the earth or a particular part of earth’s family that is in need of healing this day. It might be a place…or a creature…an ecosystem. Ask to be shown any being or any place that needs your particular attention and care. Trust that whatever comes first to your mind is the Spirit’s call to you today.
As you hold this place or being in your heart, ask whether there is anything you are called to do to support God’s healing work in this situation. No need to force an answer; it is enough to be quietly receptive, just holding the question with openness and curiosity….knowing that you can come back anytime to listen again.
Now, take a moment to note anything you feel called to do in response to this situation.
Finally, take a moment to envision all the others, all around the world, who are working together to heal this place, this creature, this situation. You might envision a vast community of compassion and care encircling the whole earth, holding all beings in the healing light of God. And as you envision this circle of compassion and action, know that you are not alone.
As you begin to release your meditation on the community of earth and return to your particular spot on earth, I offer you this prayer…
As we set out together to savor and to save this world, may we remember to call with confidence upon the presence and the power of the One we call the Source of Life: the One who moment to moment creates, sustains, and blesses all life and every life…now and forever, world without end. Amen.