Communion with Nature

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

In the late seventies when I was at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Sally McFague was the dean, and my advisor. She became a well-known theologian who re-envisioned “God” after my time there. This is a quote if from her essay, An Earthly Theological Agenda:

May we feel that we belong to the earth… know it more deeply and thoroughly than any other human beings have ever known it.

To feel that we belong to the Earth and to accept our proper place within it is the beginning of… consent to what is…. that each and every being is valuable in and for itself, and that the whole forms a unity in which each being, including oneself, has a place. [This feeling] …involves an ethical response… [which] comes when we accept our proper place and live in a fitting, appropriate way with all other beings. 

It is, finally, a religious sense, a response of wonder at and appreciation for the unbelievably vast, old, rich, diverse, and surprising cosmos, of which oneself is an infinitesimal but conscious part, the part able to sing its praises.

How do you feel about the earth? Do you feel you belong here? Where do you most sing its praises? 

Most of us have a particular place, or places, on this earth that cause us to feel at home. When we are there at that place, we have a sense of being where we belong. There is an inescapable feeling of familiarity. The place on earth where we sing its praises smells like home is supposed to, looks how it should. We know its ways. 

That is how I feel about the coastal marshes of southern Georgia and northern Florida. I know the birds there, the vaguely salty smell, the ins and outs of the tides, the broad sky.

As an adult, I have come to know mountains. Mostly of northern Georgia and North Carolina, the Blue Ridge, the Smokies; but also here in New Jersey as well.

There are so many places that fill me with songs of praise for the beauty of the earth.    

Like with any other being, being in good relationship with the earth is not unlike being in good relationship with a friend, a relative, a loved one. It is so important, as McFague suggests, to express wonder and appreciation. It is important for us to sing praises to the earth. To admire its beauty. To say thank you for what it gives us.

Of course, we worry about what will the earth be like for our children and our children’s children, for the generations that may come after us.

We worry because of our love of home.

We are deeply concerned about global warming, coastal erosion, devastation of forests and wetlands, decimation of entire species of plants and animals. For some of us, what the future may bring, what is already indicative of neglect and overuse, is on our minds every day.

We do what we need to do because of our love of this earth. 

For this morning, for these 15 minutes or so, I want us to set aside the heaviness of our spirit that worries, and instead remember what thrills us, what makes us feel at home, what elicits songs of praise from us; all that fills us with wonder and delight that has to do with the natural world. 

For some time now, there have been lovers of the earth who have been urging us to consume less, to be more environmentally friendly. For some time now, some have claimed that we are in the midst of a Great Turning, what some call the Second Enlightenment. They believe, as do I, that a profound shift in our understanding of our human role and sense of responsibility has come about because of a shift in our relationship with the earth.

I think this turning is part of why “church” is not as popular as it used to be. It isn’t because people are less spiritual. It is because more and more of us realize that God is not in some other worldly place, but here. In the garden, in nature, in the unity of all beings. We can see with our own eyes the miraculous life-affirming beauty observable in the garden, at the zoo, at the farm, on a hike, at the lake, at the ocean, on a mountain top, in the wild places that become home.

There is—as for some there has always been—a sentiment echoed in McFague’s words: The feeling that we human beings belong to the earth, that we are not separate from it, but rather a part of the unity of all that is and ever has been, [what we UUs call] the interconnected web of all being. It is this sentiment of that brings forth songs of praise; a sentiment, a feeling that nature causes to swell up in our hearts. This sentiment changes what we recognize as worthy, and how we worship. 

I hope that you spent or are spending some of your summer seeing, touching, smelling, walking on, hiking through, sailing over, swimming in, hearing the beauty of the earth.

I hope that you find a way to spend some of every week, even every day, seeing, touching, smelling, hearing, rambling through, the beauty of the earth.

And what rises in you is a song of praise. A deep loyalty to this earth and its creatures, its long existence. The drive to keep this earth habitable ought to arise not from desperation, or guilt; not from an egotistical fantasy that we can control all that is, but rather from a sense of joyful gratitude for this cosmic home which we inhabit.

We are but an infinitesimally tiny part, yes, but we are a part of all that is and ever has been. 

Since environmentalists first raised our collective consciousness over fifty years ago, perhaps the greatest change in our postmodern times has not been all the things we have learned to do to be “green,” but our sense of responsibility, our realization that we make ethical/moral choices by what we use, consume, throw away, recycle. We show our respect (or our disrespect) for the interdependent web of being all day, each and every day. We have been schooled to believe that little changes can make a difference. That is true if more and more of us do what we can to reverse the damage that has already been done. To demand a counter to the “unenlightened” practices that continue across the globe.

Perhaps the biggest lesson we still have to learn is a paradoxical one. The one that progressive religions have always held. There is much we can do, but we don’t; we never have and never will have dominion over creation—not as individuals, not as small groups, not even if every person on the planet starts making sustainable choices…

We can make lots of better choices for ourselves, for our families, as churches, as organizations in solidarity with others. We can influence large corporations, governments to make more environmentally friendly choices. But we remain, just one very small part of a vast interconnected web of all being.   

Every time there is a hurricane, an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a tsunami, we are reminded that we aren’t in control, and we will never be in control. 

As the earth’s tectonic plates inevitably shift, it won’t matter how much Styrofoam I have recycled, or what I drive, or whether, or not I eat meat. It will matter if those of us who can see beyond the ends of our own noses have learned how to do the work that is needed to end systems of poverty and oppression and have inspired our children to speak truth to power. 

What will matter most is perspective, that our voice is vastly important and infinitesimally small and short-lived. Our lives are best lived in praise and thanksgiving.  

We can make our individual choices to go as “green” as we can afford to go. We can collectively feel good about this church’s low impact on the environment. Yet, if we aren’t also concerned that our poorest neighbors have clean water and access to healthy food, and the ability to live in a in a non-toxic environment, we have not yet done all the work we need to do to for environmental justice.

Conscious of what we can and cannot control, conscious of the brevity and fragility of life, grateful for the earth our home and what it provides—food, water, shelter, beauty, recreation—let us also remember that all of us are in this vast web of life together.

I worked with a minister long ago who wanted his children to see, to feel what he has seen and felt in nature. He feared that there would be much less of the natural world by the time his children’s children came along.

Now, I understand. As I watch my own children fall in love with the natural world, I want all children and all our children’s children to love it, care for it, love and care for each other and all that is, forever more.

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