Watershed Discipleship

A few years ago, I was excited to learn about the concept of watershed discipleship, which combines the best of all my worlds: environmental concern from a Christian perspective, with an emphasis on social and environmental justice, with excellent scholarship combined with practical action. Not too surprisingly, many of its originators are from a peace church, the Mennonites (though people practicing it are now from a broad range of denominations). I wrote about the book Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith & Practice a couple months ago, if you want to get more of a sense of what watershed discipleship is.

This summer, I’m fulfilling the service-learning requirement of my PhD program by helping Ched Myers and his crew at Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries revitalize the watershed discipleship website. One of the major things I’m working on is writing and soliciting blog posts, so I’m pouring most of my writing this summer into that site, as well as the journal I edit, Whole Terrain. For those of you who are interested, I wrote a blog post about a project we did for Earth Day in April: planting 150 trees at Eloheh Farm with the Wilderness Way Community and North Valley Friends. Check out my post here. While you’re there, feel free to check out some of the other content on the site!

I’ll also post the great video that one of the youth from the Wilderness Way Community made of the day so you can get a flavor for it!

Reedwood Friends Scholar in Residence

Today marks my first day as scholar in residence at Reedwood Friends in Portland, OR. I’ll be offering a six-week series on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings on the topic “Quakers & Creation Care: ecotheology & action from a Quaker perspective.” I’m excited to begin tonight by sharing my story of how I came to be interested in environmental concerns, and hearing others’ stories of connecting with God in nature. We will also be choosing eco-challenges to work on throughout the six weeks through the Northwest Earth Institute. See below for other topics we will be learning about and discussing together throughout the series. All are welcome to attend!

 

Book review published: Watershed Discipleship

I reviewed Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith & Practice (ed. Ched Myers, Wipf & Stock, 2016) for Sojourners, and it’s in the April 2017 issue. This is an excellent book of edited chapters from individuals around the USA and Canada who are working to put environmental care into action within a Christian framework. You should all read it! I’m excited about watershed discipleship as a way of looking at environmental care, which has great potential for moving Christians from paralysis into action on their beliefs in the need to care for creation. Perhaps we think of the immensity of the environmental problem and we feel we can’t do much about it, but if we think of ourselves as members of a particular watershed, and we concentrate on caring for that space, it feels more doable. Wendell Berry rewords the Golden Rule to explain how this is an act of care for the entire planet: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you” (quoted in Myers, ed., 2016, 60).

Caring for our watersheds can be an act of discipleship that moves us out of a deer-in-the-headlights response to the enormity of the environmental problems we face because we can see ourselves taking small actions to care for God’s creation directly around us. As Sojourners readers learned in the May 2014 issue, Ched Myers and Todd Wynward define watershed discipleship as a triple entendre:

  1. It recognizes that we are in a watershed historical moment of crisis, which demands that environmental and social justice and sustainability be integral to everything we do as Christians and citizen inhabitants of specific places;
  2. It acknowledges the bioregional locus of an incarnational following of Jesus: our individual discipleship and the life and witness of the local church take place inescapably in a watershed context;
  3. And it implies that we need to be disciples of our watersheds. (Myers, ed., 2016, 2)

In this first book-length treatment of the subject of watershed discipleship, Ched Myers explains the concept, and a collection of authors under age 40 share their stories intermingled with scripture, theology, and historical reinterpretation. Placing themselves in context in the Midwest, the South, the Pacific Northwest, and California, these authors explore ecotheology in place. They tell the stories of their actions within particular watersheds, recount the history and current setting of their regions, explore information about the local flora and fauna, and point out deeply relevant passages of scripture in which the unaccustomed Bible reader might not even notice an ecological implication. After reading this book, it is impossible to read scripture without noticing how connected to the Jordan River watershed Jesus’ life and parables are, in addition to the prophets and the Hebrew people throughout much of their recorded biblical history.

“Water is life,” as Native Americans have recently reminded us in protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The authors of Watershed Discipleship connect the sacred symbolism of water throughout the Christian Scriptures with struggles for environmental justice today. Drawing on biblical imagery such as water baptism, various passages involving the Jordan River, and eschatological images of the River of Life in Revelation, the authors skillfully connect these themes to modern conflicts over access to clean water in regions across the country and around the world.

Baptism is connected with repentance, and the pieces in this volume call us as American Christians to radical repentance for our part in creating the current situation of environmental degradation. Through retelling our history of colonialism, linking our overuse of resources to the culture of systemic oppression experienced by marginalized human populations, and lifting up the biblical focus on the health of the land as a measure of whether or not the Israelites were following God faithfully, these authors show clearly that our disconnection from the land is a spiritual issue. By telling their stories of awakening to the intersectional justice issues faced by the land and marginalized people groups, and their stories regarding how they are going about reconciling relationships with land and people, they offer hope: hope that our small actions of care make a difference, and give us a literal place to start.

I highly recommend this book to any who recognize that caring for creation is something related to their faith, but they don’t know exactly how to go about it. I also highly recommend it for courses in ecotheology, creation care, and other environmentally related religion courses at the college and seminary levels. There is excellent theology in evidence here, interpreting scripture in light of modern issues, while grounding it in actual places and historical reality. You will be challenged to take a step, build a network, get to know the place in which you live, and seek for and find God there.

Book review published: Good Food

I recently reviewed a book called Good Food: Grounded Practical Theologyy by Jennifer Ayres (Baylor University Press, 2013) for the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, & Culture. You can see the review here.

Jennifer Ayres
Jennifer Ayres

While I was a bit critical of the book for the review, I did actually like it. What I didn’t like was that Ayres said she was doing “grounded practical theology,” specifically saying she’s using the social sciences research method of grounded theory, but she did not do that. I’d like to see more theologians utilize social sciences methods, but if we’re going to do so, we need to do so well! Otherwise, if we try to use the language of social sciences but we do the research poorly (within that methodology), it doesn’t help us.

That said, I did like the book, and I appreciated how she developed her theology of food. She did so by telling stories as well as finding the theology of food present within the scriptural text, and I think this is really important to recover in this day and age.

As a Quaker, I acknowledge that our lack of physical Eucharist makes it difficult for us to really make use of this kind of table imagery, which is an excellent entry point into environmental care, interconnectedness with the rest of creation, and those sorts of liturgical resources present in most of the rest of Christianity. When I think of the Eucharist as an actual meal, one that physically ties us to a particular place, time, and community, while also reminding us of the sustenance we get from God, I have a lot more respect for the practice of the physical elements in communion. That said, I would rather recover the actual table fellowship practice of eating a meal together, as it seems many early Christians practiced, rather than a commercial-grade wafer and tiny cup of grape juice from who-knows-where, as is practiced by most church communities. Eating a meal grown from the land around one’s region is a great practice that can connect us with the ecology, economy, and society in which we live, as well as with Christ, giving thanks (eu-charisto) for the grace-filled sustenance we receive each day.

Stewards of the Vineyard

Last November, I had the opportunity to preach at my Friends meeting, North Valley Friends. I was asked to share about Query 19 in our Faith & Practice document, which has to do with being a Christian steward of God’s creation. A re-visioning of the Parable of the Tenants came to me then, and I thought I’d share it here, in case it’s inspiring to anyone else. (If you want to listen to a podcast of the whole sermon, it’s available here.)

Matthew 21:33-40 (NRSV): “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Usually we read this passage in the context of people misunderstanding who Jesus was, and not getting the fact that he’s the Messiah. Yes, but I think there’s another meaning going on here: God has set us up as stewards of the vineyard. I thought that was particularly fitting due to our location here in the Willamette Valley. So if we’re supposed to be stewards of this vineyard, if we’re tenants here, taking care of this place for the Creator, how do we do that? We want to, but how?

And those tenants seem pretty hopeless, right? They seem like they are the mean, spiteful, greedy kind of tenants who want everything for themselves.

What if we imagine the landowner giving the land to some new tenants? Imagine there’s a piece of property open out in the vineyards around Newberg. The previous tenants haven’t done a great job with it, but there’s a good infrastructure built up: gnarled old vines that need some TLC but are planted in good soil. A wine press, and maybe a rickety old house. A young couple has fallen in love with the Newberg area, and they are so excited about the prospect of making really great wine. They plan to do this by putting every ounce of love and care they can into growing and harvesting their grapes, and passionately practicing their craft in order to make an artisanal local organic wine, perhaps to be paired with their friends’ local goat cheese on bread from the Newberg Bakery. So this young couple is so excited to try to find a piece of land where they can practice their craft. They recognize they have no idea how to make wine besides what they’ve read in books, but they hope that they can learn, and they’re open to learning from others.

They meet with the landowner of the vineyard we’ve just heard about, the one where the previous tenants did not exactly care for it, and, in fact, murdered any of the landowner’s envoys, though there’s no way to prove it. At this meeting, the landowner sees this young couple and sees that they are passionate about treating this land well, and bringing forth the best fruit the land can support. The landowner also sees that this young couple is clueless—they have no real experience. They can see the wine that they want to produce so clearly they can almost taste it. They are ready to put in countless hours of labor and to do so with love. They are open to learning, and they’ve started reading. In fact, they’ve read everything this landowner has written on the subject of vineyards and winemaking, and they can quote much of it verbatim.

And so, the landowner makes a decision. He or she (whoever you’ve been imagining) decides to move back onto this piece of land, and invite this young couple to work the land alongside. Every day they work together, side by side. As the couple works, they listen to the landowner tell stories of that land, the vintages that have grown out of it in years past, the previous tenants, the faithful stewards who have worked it before. They listen as the landowner tells them about pruning a vine just here, caring for the soil, collecting and distributing water, dealing with pests, when is the exact time to harvest, and what to do to produce the wine. Sometimes when the landowner sees a particular situation, s/he invites the young couple to help come up with a creative solution, and they work together to make it happen. Sometimes, these ideas fail miserably.

The first few vintages of this couple’s wine are terrible, and sometimes they wonder why the landowner even lets them help at all. But at the same time, they are so grateful that they get to be part of the process, and they hold tenaciously to their dream, and step by step they see themselves becoming the skilled crafts-people they envisioned when they came to the land.

The seasons pass, and the young couple is not so young anymore. They have children, and teach them the ways of the landowner. They tell their children the stories and teach the craft. The children also learn firsthand from the landowner, and the landowner delights in hearing their ideas. And new stories are created as the family grows up, being nourished by and nourishing the land.

———

Now, I don’t know about you, but this second story gives me a lot more hope. And I challenge us this morning not to think of the tenants in the first story as the Jews, or evil corporations who are ruining our planet, but to think of the not-so-good tenants and the young couple in the second story as parts of ourselves. Because at least for me, I notice that there are days when I feel like the old tenants, and days when I feel like the new ones. And maybe these tenants aren’t so different. Maybe the old tenants were just the same as the new ones, just as clueless about how to grow grapes and make wine, but they made different choices about what to do in that situation. The old tenants, out of fear, locked down their land, struggled on their own to try to produce what they could from this land that wasn’t theirs, and refused to give even a drop to the landowner. But the new tenants, the young couple, face life with joy and passion. They are teachable. They are open to community. They have a vision and they work hard to make that vision a reality. When an obstacle pops up between them and their goal, they brainstorm and problem solve and tenaciously hold on to their vision until they can bring it to fruition.

Friends Journal, Quaker Spaces, and Civic Ecology

I’m grateful for the community we have at North Valley Friends, and I wrote about it for the August issue of Friends Journal. This issue focused on the theme of Quaker Spaces, and in my article, “It’s the Spirit that Makes It Beautiful,” I shared about how our worship space isn’t the most up-to-date, or even the most Quakerly, but we have some really great things going on in both our indoor and outdoor spaces.

I ran across the call for submissions as I was working on a course in civic ecology last semester, and I was thinking about how many of the things we do at North Valley are listed as civic ecology actions that community groups might do. Therefore, when I heard the call for sharing about “Quaker Spaces,” I thought about how our “space” isn’t just our indoor worship space, but includes all the land we steward. I was also working on interviewing individuals about watershed discipleship, and I listened to several of them share about the history of indigenous people in their region, something I had been thinking about, too, so I added some of that into the piece.

In addition to what I wrote for Friends Journal, the full text of which you can read here, I’ll share some of the reflections I wrote for my civic ecology class. This was an annotated bibliography entry on the following article:

Krasny, Marianne E., Alex Russ, Keith G. Tidball, and Thomas Elmqvist. “Civic Ecology Practices: Participatory Approaches to Generating and Measuring Ecosystem Services in Cities.” Ecosystem Services 7 (2014): 177–86.

Krasny, et al. (2014) define civic ecology as “local environmental stewardship actions taken to enhance the green infrastructure and community well-being of urban and other human-dominated systems” (177). These practices are “active, hands-on stewardship or restoration of nature by a group of individuals” (177).

In this article, they are suggesting the importance of measuring the impact of civic ecology practices on ecosystem services. Since they recognize that most locations practicing civic ecology won’t have the scientific know-how or the time and human-power to do extensive scientific data gathering and analysis, they suggest three different ways that community groups could engage in measurement of ecosystem services benefits after their civic ecology practices occur.

First, practitioners can do citizen science measures of biodiversity. These can be measures of species presence, abundance, or diversity in a number of ways, and studies could be defined by scientists in a large-scale, data-gathering call.

Second, practitioners could measure ecosystem function. Although these functions are harder for normal people to measure on their own compared to counting species presence/diversity, they could work in collaboration with scientists, or use simple software that can help them gather data with more accuracy. Also, Krasny, et al. (2014) suggest that the data gathered could have to do with cultural services, since social systems are part of the overall social-ecological system.

Third, practitioners could gather data about the value of ecosystem services. They may not be able to measure and put a dollar amount on larger-scale impacts, but they can measure the small-scale value that individuals put on their time in nature, their ability to grow healthy organic food they otherwise couldn’t afford, or have access to city parks. This data can be gathered through open-ended or Likert surveys.

This article was interesting because it makes me feel like my congregation is already engaging in civic ecology: in the last decade, we put in a walking trail around our property and the public is invited to use it. We did this in collaboration with the city’s park and recreation district. We also put in a large outdoor labyrinth that provides spiritual services, which is one of the measures of cultural ecosystem services Krasny, et al. (2014) suggest (182). Around the labyrinth we planted native species (and some non-native ones) to serve as a berm, as well as to attract and provide sustenance for pollinators. We also have a community garden for the provisioning of people. We sought and found a local nursery willing to donate a number of trees to line the trail in areas that currently have few trees, and we planted them as a community. All of these provided opportunities for our community members to participate in these practices actively. We also provide the space for “passive recreational use” (182), and many people come to walk or run the trail: alone, with their dogs, or with family or friends. This provides ample opportunity for the development of a stronger social network, not to mention personal psychological and physical wellbeing from contact with nature and from exercise.

It’s also amazing to notice in myself the movement in environmental/ecological identity (which I learned about last semester in conservation psychology) as I take on this label as someone who has already participated quite a bit in civic ecology practices, and who is part of a community who has done so. Finding and calling out the things that we’re already doing and framing them as pro-environmental behaviors (De Young, 2014), and even as part of something larger, like the movement for civic ecology, really does make me feel like I’m already farther along on the path toward my goal than I had thought. This has much to do with my work on hope, too: finding the stories of success from my past (or our collective past) to base our next steps on can give us the sense of self-efficacy to feel like we will be able to find the motivation to move toward our hoped-for goal. It’s also helpful to see that we’re already oriented in this direction, and even taking steps in this direction, so finding the momentum to continue doesn’t feel as daunting.

I can see my congregation possibly doing some sort of value measurement survey of people who come to use the trail and labyrinth (we’ve already done informal ones, when the pastor, for example, asks people she sees along the trail how they heard about the trail and how often they use it, just to make conversation and out of curiosity). Seeing this as a part of the ecosystem services that this space provides is kind of a novel thought to me.

Also, if we count spiritual connection to the space as one type of ecosystem services, this has broad implications for how communities of faith might be able to envision themselves and their work as contributing to ecosystem services. If we can start there, and they can have that experience of suddenly seeing their environmental identity through a different lens like I just did (regarding how much my community has already done in enacting civic ecology practices), even if their community isn’t very far along that path, they can still see themselves as part of the whole. I think it’s great to think of cultural and spiritual connections as part of ecosystem services. It values the contributions of all different types of people and organizations, and places us on a similar trajectory, rather than feeling like we need to reorient in order to participate in civic ecology.

Photo credit: Paul Bock

Bibliography:

De Young, Raymond. “Some Behavioral Aspects of Energy Descent: How a Biophysical Psychology Might Help People Transition through the Lean Times Ahead.” Frontiers in Psychology; Cognitive Science 5 (November 2014): 1–16.

Krasny, Marianne E., Alex Russ, Keith G. Tidball, and Thomas Elmqvist. “Civic Ecology Practices: Participatory Approaches to Generating and Measuring Ecosystem Services in Cities.” Ecosystem Services 7 (2014): 177–86.

Re-storying and re-membering at the Christian Feminism Today Conference

Last week I had the opportunity to present a paper at the Christian Feminism Today conference in Indianapolis, IN. This was my first time at this gathering, which has been meeting every other year since the 1970s. I found the community welcoming and so supportive of a newbie to the group! The group included many wise and fun individuals, many of whom have spent their careers dealing with sexism and attempting to enact and embody an egalitarian paradigm in the church and the academy. Many of the people there have been wounded by the church, but refuse to give up, and instead have found this group and found the Spirit present there.

Glen & Fanny11232014_0000 (1)
My great-grandparents, Glen & Fanny (Nutting) Beebe

I personally shared on the topic of: “Christian Feminism for the 21st Century: a prophetic eco-praxis mash-up of tradition and culture that would cause my homesteader great-grandmother and earlier feminists to roll over in their graves.” I think I won the longest title award! I enjoyed sharing about my mom’s “Granny” and what I wish had been passed down through the generations of the knowledge and wisdom she held, and also my recognition that her homesteader lifestyle came at the cost of the livelihood and lives of those who had previously lived on the land. It also came at the cost of the ecosystems that were destroyed by tearing out sagebrush for monocropping and damming the river. I shared that we’re not going to make progress on feminist issues unless we work to make progress on ecological and racial issues at the same time, because they’re all connected to a culture of domination. I had previously written somewhat on this topic for Christian Feminism Today in the article entitled: “Scarcity vs. Abundance: Moving Beyond Dualism to ‘Enough.’

Other presenters included Austin Channing, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, and Diana Butler Bass. I loved having the chance to learn from and meet these excellent speakers and writers. Kristen Kobes Du Mez wrote up an excellent review of the conference, especially connecting the talks of these three women and myself, on her blog on Patheos: “History, Memory, and Relevance: Reflections on Christian Feminism Today.” Go there and read her thoughts!

Grace Ji-Sun Kim

I am honored to be included in such company, and I was grateful to the Spirit for giving me words that fit in with the themes also presented by these other speakers. It felt like we were definitely on the same wavelength. I reviewed Grace Ji-Sun Kim‘s book, Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love, back in January, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know her virtually since then. She teaches at the other Quaker seminary, Earlham School of Religion, and her understanding of the Spirit shows a definite Quaker influence! Or, at least, her understanding of the Spirit fits right in in Quaker circles, and she’s listening to the same Spirit I know and connect with as a Friend.

Diana Butler Bass

Surprisingly (to me), Diana Butler Bass‘s talk was also heavily influenced by Quakers. She shared about her newest book, Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution. As she was doing research for that book, she learned about her Quaker ancestry. A Quaker myself, I was amazed by how much of an influence her Quaker heritage had on her self-identity, and how much it had impacted her upbringing even though she hadn’t previously known where that stream of her beliefs and being came from. I’m going to read Grounded soon and so I’ll return to this idea later, but I was really struck by the power of our tradition’s emphasis on contemplation and social justice action. We are a small denomination, but God’s Spirit has multiplied our efforts! Butler Bass reminded us that the Bible says a curse will last a few generations, but a blessing will last a thousand generations. May we as Friends continue to be a blessing!

Austin Channing

My own talk followed Austin Channing‘s prophetic message, and I appreciated how she spoke out of her context as an African American woman, both challenging and encouraging this mostly-white group of mostly-women to reach out to one another. She showed us the women in the pre-Exodus story: the midwives, the princess, Miriam, and the mother of Moses. They practiced civil disobedience at all levels of society. As Channing put it, Pharaoh was afraid of the men, but he miscalculated! She encouraged us to not let fear divide us, but to remember and tell the less presentable parts of our stories.

It’s my hope that my work to tell the story of Granny and my Quaker feminist ancestors did this idea justice, telling both the parts I’m proud of and the parts I’m not proud of, and attempting to live in a way that leads to justice for all the marginalized today.