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!
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:
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;
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;
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.
Today, I’m thinking about the incredible amount of vulnerability required in Quaker business process. It’s vulnerable in that we each have to be willing to show up, do our best work of listening, hold out our piece or angle on the truth with the fiercest, most solid conviction we know how, and let it go, trusting one another and the Spirit to sift and sort and aim us toward the best direction we collectively know how to find.
It’s also vulnerable to authoritarian intrusion, and this is what has, sadly, occurred of late in Northwest Yearly Meeting, the group of Friends I have belonged to since birth.
Because our polity and decision-making is based on the process of consensus, we must trust one another to bring everything to the table and truly listen to the Spirit, rather than making backroom deals or pushing one’s own agenda to the exclusion of listening together. The ideal Quaker process works in such a way that, although we each share our own conviction and sense of leading, we listen for the Spirit’s guidance. We let go of our own understanding, our own need to be right, our own fears, and we submit to the will of the Spirit: the one who enlivens the scriptures and who we will recognize by the embodiment of Love.
Instead, of late, our yearly meeting became divided and untrusting. People chose “sides,” did not trust others, and worked through political strategy rather than through a sense of leading to get “our” people on boards and in positions of leadership, rather than “their” people.
In the culmination of this dysfunctional behavior, the “leadership” laid down an ultimatum: the yearly meeting “restructures” (read: kicks out the four meetings who have minuted LGBTQ welcoming and affirming stances), or everyone at the representatives meeting last month had to come to consensus around another option. The rationale was that, since the four meetings were acting in ways contrary to our Faith & Practice, they can and should be removed from the body. (The irony, of course, is that the authoritarian action taken by the Administrative Committee to force this decision is so far outside of Faith & Practice’s policy as to be laughable.)
I don’t want this post to be about that split so much as about vulnerability, however.
I recognize now, more than ever, the extreme vulnerability of the polity we espouse as Friends, and it is incredibly painful that people could come in and use the good faith and trust of others in the yearly meeting to push through their own agenda. It is so difficult, now, to even imagine trusting others, and in some ways I would like to just give up trusting people altogether. It would be much easier to just become cynical, and to attempt to use political means to manipulate my way in the future.
Much more difficult, however, is remaining vulnerable and open, trusting and hoping, and remaining open to the radical and intense freedom and joy of coming together as a group of Friends to discern together, fully and wholly, unreservedly, bringing our whole selves.
I say it is more difficult, but to me, it is also the only Way worth living. I do not want to become cold and shriveled, protecting and controlling. Instead, I choose life, I choose joy, I choose trust and vulnerability: I choose Love.
It may not be the way of most power and prestige. It may be a difficult Way. But it is the Way of Christ for any who choose to follow it.
It is a Way that includes boundaries: while I choose to be radically open and vulnerable in settings of Quaker worship through business, I choose to set a firm boundary regarding an abusive and authoritarian structure that no longer resembles anything close to the Law of Love. While I can love the people who did this, and desire what’s best for them as they continue their journey, I set a strong boundary with a firm, No. This is unhealthy behavior and I will not participate in it; I will not tolerate it. I will remove myself from this unhealthy relationship. I will go to the margins, where others have been sent, and I will find Christ there, amongst those cast out by the “church” based on a dead reading of words on a page, rather than a willingness to courageously engage in a dynamic reading led by the Living Word. I will live out love. There is no other Way I would wish to go.
This is the path of strength through vulnerability, and I think I have never understood the verse, “my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor 12:9) before this and other similar experiences bestowed upon me by NWYM. It’s a path of courage, of taking heart, of opening and opening again to the Light, filled with grace and truth. It’s a willingness to trust myself and the Light of Christ I know and connect with inside, connecting with that Light in others, and being guided by it.
May the Spirit guide your path, as you choose the strength of vulnerability today and always.
May the breath of the Spirit enliven you, wake up the Society of Friends, and draw us toward a new intensity and conviction of justice through love in these difficult times.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the voices and stories of women are not always told in the Bible, and even when they are, they reflect a male perspective, and, presumably, mostly male authorship. There are many women in the biblical text, from Eve, Sarah, and Rachel to Mary the mother, Mary Magdalene, and Elizabeth. But we do not always hear very much about them or learn their stories, thoughts, and experiences. In Lady Midrash: Poems Reclaiming the Voices of Biblical Women (Resource Publications, Wipf & Stock, 2016), Elisabeth Mehl Greene asks the question, “What if?” What if these women’s stories had been told in the text, or what if they had been the ones telling the stories? Who is missing or unnamed in the text, and what might they have had to say about the stories depicted in the Bible?
Greene is engaging in a form of midrash, a Jewish tradition of wrestling with the text: asking questions of the text, and letting the text question us. This not only occurs through logic, through questions that can be answered, but by writing in the form of poetry, Greene is able to express and open up in the reader “informed imagination” (xi). Her poems are well researched and she clearly understands the context of the Ancient Near East and Judea under Roman rule in first century Palestine, but she also engages in playful creativity, irony and critique, expansive and prophetic truth-seeking alongside the mundane tasks performed in the everyday lives of the depicted women.
Engaging in a “hermeneutic of remembrance” (a quote from Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in Greene, xviii), Greene invites us along on a journey of imagination, bringing to our awareness the stories of women who are “unnamed, unexplored, or even erased” (xii). She explores through poetry the stories and perspectives of 60 biblical personages, some named in the text (Eve, Ruth, Hannah), some unnamed (Jephthah’s daughter, the lover of Solomon, the sister of Jesus), and some presumably present but not mentioned (the women at Mt. Sinai, wise travelers from the East).
What if we heard their voices? What if their interactions with and understanding of God were also recorded? What more might we know of God, and of humanity’s relationship with God, if we were open to hearing from God through all present? This begs the question, who are the unheard ones in our midst today? Whose voices are we missing, and what might we hear and know of God if we listened more deeply to those around us today? How might we record and pass along such stories to those who come after us in such a way that a well-rounded perspective of the creative dance between God and humanity can be known?
I had the privilege of meeting Elisabeth Mehl Greene last summer at a Christian Feminism Today conference, where she led a workshop on this text. She invited us to sit with a text about a woman from scripture and ask questions of the text. What do we learn about the woman from the text? What do we not know of her story? What might she add to the story if we could hear her voice? Greene invited us to write some reflections, and even to try our hand at midrashic poetry, pursuing some of the questions and wisdom God might have to offer as we explore these stories using our informed imagination. I found this to be a challenging and fun way to engage with these texts that can often become sort of dry, and in some cases painful and sad, when seen again and again at face value.
Greene and Kendra Weddle Irons (who wrote the Foreword) acknowledge that some may worry about applying this poetic license to the scriptural text. Irons says, “It is much safer to believe God never changes and therefore the Bible reflects a similar inflexibility. But such intransigence fails to take seriously the teaching method Jesus used. His parables with their twists and turns never provided easy or tidy answers…. Similarly, midrash requires active listening so that questions rather than statements are cultivated and considered” (xi).
I enjoyed reading these poems slowly, letting these female characters come alive in my imagination. No longer two-dimensional figures offering a backdrop to (male) heroes, these poems offered a window into the human beings behind the biblical depictions. I wonder what it would be like to read Lady Midrash with a women’s Bible study group, reading the biblical texts from whence these poems arise, asking questions, and seeking after God through new entry points into ancient stories. I would also recommend assigning these poems in Bible classes, providing a different way of approaching biblical texts, and encouraging students to take note of the women in the text, as well as to recognize the humanity of biblical authors and other characters within the biblical narrative. This book might be especially apropos for courses such as Women in the Bible, or feminist explorations of the Bible.
In Lady Midrash, Greene simultaneously upholds the importance of the scriptural stories in continuing to offer meaning to spiritual seekers today, as well as a willingness to question, dig deep, seek after and find God, and grow in one’s faith through tenacity, hope, creativity, birth, prophecy, grace, wisdom, and friendship. By bringing these women’s stories to life, we are better able to see ourselves represented in the text, in all our failures and successes, loves and broken heartedness: in short, in all the glory and tragedy that makes us human.
Here is one poem that is speaking to me particularly today:
(The prophetess who bore Isaiah’s children)
Hear me, you heavens!
Listen to me, earth!
For God has spoken,
spoken through me.
God spoke to Isaiah also,
but I birthed God’s messages
in my body,
burning coal on my lips,
words in my mouth,
children in my arms.
Therefore the Lord
will give you a sign:
a prophetess will conceive
and give birth
and will call the child Immanuel,
which means God With Us.
I did as I was told.
Take a great scroll
and write on it
with a woman’s hand:
Go to the prophet,
conceive and bear
“the remnant,” and “the plunder.”
They will answer to these names
and in the echo
you will hear deafening wing claps.
Here am I, send me.
Another mother went to a prophet
and now her precious ones answer to
and “not my people.”
O Lord, how long?
And after all of this,
angels and infants,
visions and promises,
I was never his wife.
No eagles bore me up,
but I ran, ignoring weariness,
I walked and did not faint.
I carried the messages.
God was with me.
Perhaps one day
my strength will be renewed.
(*Nebiyah is the transliteration for the female version of the Hebrew word for prophet. There is some uncertainty among scholars regarding whether this woman who bore Isaiah’s sons was his wife, a prophetess, or both. What is clear is that, although she bore the children of the prophecy through her body, we know very little about her. What is her story? What else did God say through her? How does God speak to you through this scrap of a reclaimed story?)
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.
I’m soon finishing out my term as the Portland regional editor for Christ & Cascadia, an online journal and conference exploring the intersection of Northwest theology and culture. I recently went to their annual conference in Seattle. Unfortunately, I only got to go for the second day, as I was knocked out with a bad cold, but the part I went to was fun! It was great to gather with people interested in what Christian faith looks like in this region, share a bit about my own interests and research in a presentation entitled, “Cascadian Watershed Discipleship,” and see friends and colleagues. For my presentation, I shared about the concept of watershed discipleship, then gave four examples of communities and individuals who are practicing watershed discipleship around Cascadia: two church communities (Salal + Cedar in Vancouver, BC, Wilderness Way in Portland, OR), one college professor (Wes Howard-Brook at Seattle University), and one non-profit organization (A Rocha – Canada near Vancouver, BC). I may write more about these for Christ & Cascadia or other venues, or here, at a later time, but while you’re waiting you can go visit their websites and learn about their work. I enjoyed interviewing people for this project. It was fun getting to know some new people and being inspired by their work.
Speaking of being inspired by others’ work, I also wrote up an interview I did with Peter Sergienko at St. Michael’s & All Angels Episcopal Church in Portland for the Christ & Cascadia journal. (I got connected with Sergienko because he was a GreenFaith fellow in the cohort before me.) I enjoyed learning about the work that Sergienko is doing personally, as well as what his congregation and denomination are doing to enact environmental stewardship, work toward environmental justice, and be aware of both social and environmental needs of the people of the region. You can read my interview here.
For those of you interested in participating in next year’s Christ & Cascadia conference, I recommend it! It’s a good place to network with people of faith thinking about regional Christian practice. I would like there to be a stronger environmental focus. It focuses more on the culture of Cascadia, rather than thinking of it as a bioregion with particular emphasis on place and its effects on theology. I think C&C raises some good questions so far, and as we continue a regional dialogue, I am hopeful that more of an awareness of bioregion and place-based Christian theology can develop.
I read Listening to Teach at just the right time. I had a bit of a difficult class spring term, because we were talking about some sensitive topics such as race, class, gender, etc. without a lot of support or background on the part of the students. (It was an interdisciplinary capstone class where I had minimal control of the curriculum, and no control of the speakers and textbook.) I attempted to implement some of the skills of listening that I read about in Listening to Teach right away. I always find it interesting, however, that it’s the students who are often more resistant to moving beyond a didactic pedagogy than the teachers. I struggled to create a space that was safe for all perspectives to be shared, while also did not allow racist or sexist comments to stand. This is such a difficult balance, since I don’t want the conversation to just be me “against” a racist student, but also, I don’t want other students (particularly students of color) to be put in the situation of defending a racially inclusive perspective. At any rate, I was encouraged by what I learned in this book. Read my full review for more about the book itself.
Discerning Critical Hope was a gem, since I’m working on developing an ecotheology of critical hope. I loved the book and found it encouraging, challenging, and helpful in getting my mind around what others mean when they’re using the term “critical hope.” Since it was a volume with chapters by all different authors, I wish there was a bit more that had defined critical hope, or given some sort of criteria, but by listening to all the voices, it’s possible to get a sense of what they’re aiming toward. (They’re basing the idea mainly on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Hope, so of course going back and reading that would also give the reader a better understanding.) But I feel like critical hope is a direction to aim for any religious educator, and it would be good if we could aim in this direction as pastors or leaders in faith-based organizations, too. I think we (Christians) often get too caught up in the idea of making everyone comfortable, having warm and fuzzy feelings, and we forget how to challenge people to critique what’s going on and also to have a sense of agency that they can do something about it. It seems to me that that’s what the church is for, and the religious academy is there to help faith leaders to lead their communities to and through these difficult challenges, while remaining fixed in a hope-filled narrative of grace, love, forgiveness, and reconciliation of all things through Christ. I hope that this becomes a theme that theologians begin connecting with, and specifically in the field of ecotheology.
The Wabash Center also has lots of other great resources for educators in theology and religion, such as syllabi, grants, thoughts on teaching, and lots of other book reviews. Check out the Reflective Teaching site to find other inspiring books, and read some great reviews, such as this recent one by my colleague, Laura Simmons, on a book about co-constructing knowledge in the classroom.