On a small sailing dinghy, like the one I learned to sail on when I was a teenager, you learn to feel the wind. With the mainsheet in one hand and the tiller in the other, you learn to balance the force of the wind against the resistance of the water. Adjust either the sheet or the tiller, and you can feel the pressure difference in the other. Your arms tell you when they are balanced.
This is one of those major differences between what you can know with your mind and what you can know in your body. If I have to describe how sailing works with words, I say this: ”Boats can move against the wind because of the lift generated by the shape of the sail. Even though the wind may be in your face, you are pulled forward by the pressure differential.” Maybe you grasp this concept easily, but for me, it didn’t really make sense until I felt both the sail and the tiller pulling my hands, and I understood that in order to point the boat in the right direction, I had to balance those forces.
I remember when it clicked. It was exhilarating. I was doing old-school magic, riding the boundary of these two elements, water and air.
Not so with a big boat. The forces are too huge for you to manage them with your own strength. You cannot control the sails with your bare hands. It requires winches, a crew, and language. The idea here is not to balance the forces in your body, but to set the sails and rudder so that the boat steers itself.
That’s why our instructor kept telling us, “steer less, anticipate more.” If you are the pilot, you cannot turn the wheel as if you are turning a car. If you move the wheel, it may take several seconds before you notice a change in direction — especially if the boat is bobbing and bouncing over the waves. I was also learning a different kind of body knowledge: the feel of the boat under my feet. How the boat slid down a wave could predict which way the bow would point several seconds later. I didn’t need to correct every change. I was learning to distinguish signal from noise.
“Steer less, anticipate more”seems like good life advice, too. And good advice for the church.
The early church often talked about the church as a sailboat and the Holy Spirit, the wind or “breath of God,” as the force that pushed the church forward. But I think She also pulls us forward. The waves of time, culture, and circumstance offer resistance, but somehow balancing these forces gives us a direction. Too often we are trying to steer the boat, fighting the waves while our sails flap in the breeze.
Part of my rationale for taking this trip was to learn from history, to anticipate more of what’s coming for our culture and for the church. And, for myself, to steer less. After we earned our sailing certificate, we planned to go to Germany, to see where the Reformation kicked off and where, during World War 2, the world faced deep theological questions about the justice of God.
Prayer: Help me to steer less and anticipate more, trusting in your Breath and the friction of the world to move me in the right direction.
In the fall of 2019, before the pandemic hit, we were scheduled to take our sailing class the following June in Greece. I was excited to get our curriculum package in the mail! I opened up a large folder full charts, and unwrapped the protractor and the navigation divider. I had seen these in movies, but had never used one.
But before we got to navigation, we needed to learn the basics. The first section of our curriculum was about the parts of a sailboat. And right here, in the first few pages of our workbook, I found one of my most important lessons. The V-shaped part of the boat above the bow is called the pulpit — the same word that describes the place in a church where a preacher delivers a sermon.
(It’s also the place where, in the movie Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett shout and stretch out their arms into the wind. I’ll talk more about the Titanic and how it fits into “sailing uncharted waters” when I tell you about our time in Belfast, where the Titanic was built).
Churches have often used the metaphor of a sailboat to describe their community. At certain early Christian pilgrimage sites, you can often find graffiti of a boat carved into a stone wall or bit of plaster. After the early church stopped meeting in homes and started meeting in dedicated buildings, congregations referred to the main sanctuary as the nave, as in “navy,” because the vaulted ceiling looked like the ribs of a boat. They imagined the pews as seats in a galley, and the congregation as the rowers. The pulpit resembled the bow of a boat.
But I realized an important church-related truth in this sailboat diagram: you don’t steer a boat from the pulpit. You steer it from the pushpit (or the cockpit), in the rear (or stern) of the boat. The person in front is not necessarily the person who is running the show.
I think the early church communities understood, even after they began to become more institutionalized, that the clergy were not the only people in charge. See, it takes a lot of coordination to make a sailing vessel move. A boat probably has a captain, but a person on watch stands in the pulpit to see where the boat is going or to take bearings. A pilot stands in the rear to move the wheel or rudder and call out to the crew controlling the sails. A navigator takes measurements to make sure the boat is on course.
And early church theologians talked about the Holy Spirit, like a wind or the breath of God, being the power that filled the sails and actually moved the church forward.
When people talk about the church today, they typically talk about it as an institution or a business. I’ve heard people say “the church should be a hospital for sinners instead of a museum for saints,” which is true enough. But I wonder how it would change our perception if our main metaphor for church was not a static building or an institution, but something that actually moved under the power of wind or spirit. I wonder what would change if we traded our binary model of “leader” and “follower” for terms like captain, pilot, watchman, navigator, and crew.
Prayer: Jesus who stills the storms, help us to be your competent crew.
Since we’re in one of these “Five-hundred year rummage sales” where all our old ideas and values are being reevaluated, I thought it would be a good idea to look at past rummage sales. Two thousand years ago (or four rummage sales ago), when a small group of Jesus-followers started spreading his message, the new movement met in peoples’ homes. The early movement called themselves “ecclesia,” or “the called-out ones.” This usually gets translated as “church,” but the old name, ecclesia, implies that this new community would be an alternative to religion as usual. Many of those house church leaders were women, and Paul names them: Chloe, Nyssa, Junia, Lydia, and others. They were explicitly egalitarian and inclusive. Paul wrote “there is no longer Jew or Greek, enslaved or free, male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Paul and his companions sailed around the Mediterranean, networking these new communities and doing what we might today call “community organizing.” He was trying to get several different communities to cooperate as one.
This history is one reason I chose “sailing uncharted waters” as my proposal theme. The early ecclesia had no idea where the future would take them. There was no chart. They had no idea what hazards lay ahead, or who might try to hijack their movement. They did not know how the currents and tides of history might move their boat off course.
Boats, of course, were an important symbol in the early church. Jesus preached from a boat, stilled the storm on the Lake of Galilee, and hung out with fishermen.
My first experience with sailboats was when I was a teenager. My parents bought a single-sail 14-foot dinghy and we learned to sail on Alabama lakes. But in 2019, in order to get a sense of what the leaders of the early church faced, I decided I needed to learn how to sail on the sea. Part of my proposal would include sailing lessons. We made a plan that included sailing on the Mediterranean and visits to Greek archeological sites where Paul met with early church leaders.
But after my proposal was accepted and I received the grant for my renewal project, the pandemic hit. We had to cancel our plans. I wasn’t just disappointed. I was heartbroken. But I realized that plagues have also been part of the “uncharted waters” that church and society have faced in past centuries. We know that pandemics will occur more regularly in the future as our climate changes. Perhaps it was fitting that my journey began with an interruption. I realized that we really are sailing uncharted waters.
Prayer: God, our Guardian and Guide, you are with us on the journey, even when we are standing still.
In addition to being a pastor, I have a Ph.D in religion, with an emphasis in homiletics (preaching) and social ethics. But as I watch the many crises affecting churches and academia, sometimes it feels like I did an incredible amount of work to get a degree in shoeing horses. There just aren’t a lot of jobs for farriers these days. It’s a niche occupation.
I don’t think religion will ever be obsolete. But I do think religious institutions, and the clergy who maintain them (my online friend David Dark refers to clergy as “professional god-talkers”) will become more rare in the coming years. In addition to all the evidence of plummeting church participation, churches are polarized and splitting. There is a well-documented trend of pastors burning out and giving up, especially during COVID. I’ve felt it, too, that sense of hopeless dread. This is a hard season in which to try to build or maintain a religious community.
As a society, I’d argue that in many ways, we’re becoming more religious. Back in the 1960’s, the General Social Survey reported that only 22% of Americans said they’d had a life-changing spiritual or mystical experience. By 2009, according to a Pew Religion and Public Life survey, it was nearly half of all Americans. Spiritual experience increased even as church participation decreased.
Some of this may have to do with the growth of a population who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In the sociological research, they are often described as “SBNRs.” Twenty years ago in his book After the Baby Boomers, sociologist Robert Wuthnow described what younger generations did as “spiritual bricolage,” sampling from multiple streams of faith traditions.
In many ways, I feel like the work I did to earn a Ph.D in religion prepared me to have a ringside seat at this period of the Great Emergence, to observe of this work of spiritual bricolage as an anthropologist might.
Even though church and academy are struggling, on my good days, I don’t feel that my effort in church or academia has been wasted. I didn’t go into ministry for the career advancement opportunities — I did it because I love God and I love people. And I didn’t go into academia so I could fight to earn a tenure-track position — I did it because I love learning. That’s why I proposed the trip I’m about to share with you: Navigating Uncharted Waters. If you’ve signed up for these devotionals, that probably means you do, too. This moment in history calls for people who love God, love people, and love learning.
Thanks for joining me on this journey.
Prayer: God, you who are both hidden and revealed, reveal to us the path toward truth and life. Amen.
I can’t help think about Harry Frankfurt’s essay, “On Bullshit” whenever I encounter white male pastors talking about a “third way” or being “centrist.” Frankfurt makes the point that humbug (a form of bullshit) is not a claim about reality; it’s a claim about the speaker.
Frankfurt quotes Max Black’s definition of “humbug” — “deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” I suspect this describes many 3rd-way pastors these days.
I want to add that I’m not unsympathetic toward pastors who misrepresent themselves during this rise of white Christian Nationalism. I think there are a lot of pastors suffering from Moral Injury, a form of PTSD.
“Third Way” and “centrist” rhetoric may be a form of self-preservation. It says, “I’m not your target” to angry congregants. For many, speaking truthfully about the rise of WCN puts their families and their careers at risk. Far easier to talk about “polarization” and put the blame “on both sides.” But this silence comes at the cost of moral injury.
“Centrism,” in the USian church at this historical moment is a way of positioning my whitedudeself at the center of two imaginary and equally-obejctionable extremes. It reinforces the norm of binary USian “left-right” politics even as it pretends to offer an alternative. But it’s really just status-quo preaching.
(I have to note that the word “centrist” is very descriptive: it really does *center* white male power in the area of public theology and public policy. In this way it perpetuates material harm for others and moral injury for pastors.)
“I defy classification” is a lie that many church leaders tell themselves about themselves. They lament polarization, demonization, and enemyfying, and praise nuance and perspective-taking. All good. But when it comes to specific policies and questions of power… silence.
A preacher w/out this insight may even identify himself (and it’s almost always a “him”) with Christ, “crucified by both left and right,” as I’ve heard one preacher say, vicariously placing himself in the center not only of American politics, but the f’n cosmos.
3rd-way/centrism is “bullshit” because it’s a claim about yourself, not about reality. The last thing pastors want to do is talk about specific policies or theological claims, preferring to gesture toward the extremes and make apophatic statements about their own (& Jesus’s) identity (i.e. “Jesus is not a Democrat or a Republican.”)
Again, I know this is *moral injury* for many pastors. It’s a trap that leads to burnout and demoralization when leaders are crushed between institutional evangelical-capitalist expectations for church growth and a vocational responsibility for truth-telling.
We need to name this bullshit self-centering rhetoric not only for the sake of the people being harmed by these crises, and not only for the sake of the church, and not only for the planet, but for the sake of the pastors who are complicit in it.
Church leaders cannot navigate the crises of climate change, fascism, & disaster capitalism by making nice with wealthy donors whose interests are in perpetuating those things at the expense of everyone else on the planet. If Jesus takes no side here, he’s not merely useless. He’s doing harm.
As a pastor without a uterus, I feel my own voice should take a backseat to those who are more directly impacted, and yet I also have a responsibility to deploy mine for the good of my friends and family. You may have seen that some of my words from a Facebook post in 2018 went viral again. I want to set those words in context with my baptismal vow to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves” and my ordination vow to uphold the Discipline of the United Methodist Church.
The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence. While individuals have always had some degree of control over when they would die, they now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether new individuals will be born. Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion.
But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.
We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers.
While they have their flaws (especially with regard to LGBTQIA persons), the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church generally reflect a well-reasoned majority theological and social position on current issues. The UMC has historically viewed abortion as a “tragic choice,” but emphasized that it is still a choice between a woman and her doctor:
Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.
The section on abortion also points out some of the best ways to reduce the frequency of abortion:
We mourn and are committed to promoting the diminishment of high abortion rates. The Church shall encourage ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies such as comprehensive, age-appropriate sexuality education, advocacy in regard to contraception, and support of initiatives that enhance the quality of life for all women and girls around the globe.
It is important to note that while both abortions and unintended pregnancies have been declining for years, many of the United States and Alabama legislators who are restricting abortion access are simultaneously pulling the rug out from under people who get pregnant. In Alabama, for example, we still have abstinence-only education. We have not expanded Medicaid. We are a “right-to-work” state, which means people who get pregnant do not have labor protections, nor do they have parental leave to take care of newborns.
All of these factors combine to make people’s lives harder, to make unintended pregnancy more likely, and to complicate pregnancy and delivery. These policies are at odds with the United Methodist Social Principles. They are also at odds with God’s vision of justice and shalom in the world.
I am continuously awed by the process of new life. I spend hours building birdhouses so that mama birds have a safe place to raise their young. I delight in this time of year, watching fluffy fledglings take their first timid hops out of a nest. I believe all life is sacred, and I long for a world where all of God’s family is aided to flourish. I am “pro-family” for the human world and the more-than-human world.
But I also recognize that evil is a force that warps the most holy things in the world, including parenthood and the Gospel. When our society weaponizes pregnancy against populations of poor people, indigenous people, and people of color, or when religious groups weaponize the language of love and care to oppress others, it is a deep betrayal of the Good News.
All of which has made the last week — and the last six years — exhausting for many of us who identify as Christians who seek liberation and healing for ALL people. On this Mother’s Day, I hope you will take care of yourself and your own mental health. Rest and self-care are radical acts of resistance in a system that demands exploitive labor, which claims ownership of our bodies, and which tries to appropriate our spiritual and emotional energy for its own agenda of conquest and colonialism. We say that we will “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” I hope you will join me in sacred rest, sacred lament, and revolutionary, worshipful, self-care.
I posted the following on Facebook last year as we approached the election:
I do not want to dismiss the importance of voting and our political activity AT ALL. But I also want to offer some perspective in light of all the political, social, and climate upheaval that exists right now:
Our ability to make it through this next critical period depends on how we build or find alternatives to business-as-usual. Our power structures make it VERY difficult for us to “opt out” of an economy built on fossil fuels, extractive economies, and oppression of Black, indigenous, people of color, queer folks, disabled folks, immigrants, and religious minorities.
The political and social imagination of the people in power is very limited, but the political and social imagination of THE REST OF US is expansive, creative, and generative. We are literally a force of nature, which is always growing dandelions through sidewalks and making mold grow on Twinkies. “Life finds a way,” as Jeff Goldblum’s character says in Jurassic Park. You are an expression of life itself. Remember that.
The next two weeks is going to be full of imagination-limiting rhetoric and the words of narrow monied interests. Again, without diminishing the importance of voting or doing harm reduction for a society hell-bent on wrecking itself, please hear the invitation to find meaning outside of this binary bullshit. Crazy emperors and petty tyrants have been denying science and believing they can defy gravity or shout at the tide not to come in for millennia. But the earth and her relentless move toward more life and greater diversity are not cowed by our myopic stupidity or our death-dealing policies.
Jesus told us to look at the birds, who do not speculate on stock markets, and at the lilies, who do not follow social media for likes, fashion advice, or social trends. Our value and our meaning are not derived from the dominant culture’s ways of deciding “winners” and “losers.”
Our political and social imagination is very much the realm of what we call “spiritual,” regardless of whether you are a romantic or a materialist, religious or non. There are those who would limit your imagination. But we are the ones who shape culture through our spiritual lives—not the folks who are on our screens. We give these loonies so much power, y’all, because we give them our attention. The first step to removing their power over us is to turn our attention to other things.
Again, I’m not echoing the right-wing blame-the-media-for-our-divisions machine. I’m saying we give power to whatever we give our attention. And if we collectively give more attention to what is immediately around us, the things that we truly value that give life meaning, we can resist the self- and other-destructive forces of this world that do not have our interest—or the interest of our planet—at heart.
In order to make it through the next few weeks, focus on loving yourself. Loving the planet. Loving your people. Practice those things that you know bring more love and light into the world, like prayer and meditation, growing living things, being tender toward what is stretching toward the sun or snuggling down to hibernate for the winter.
Consider the bird that lingers at the feeder on its way south, and think of the mass human migration that is already taking place. How much longer until climate change forces us to move? What can we learn from the birds?
We need the wisdom of the birds and the flowers. Letting go, acting without attachment to the results of our actions, may be the greatest political power we have. Focus on what’s most important and under your control. Don’t sweat the rest of it.
I want you to know that I spend a lot of time with people who are not Christian, and with Christians of many political stripes. Some are fundamentalists and some are eco-warriors. Some are pro-gay and some are anti-gay. Some are conservative black preachers and some are liberal white preachers. I have had meaningful conversations and life lessons from tree-hugging pro-choice social justice warriors and from end-times-believing hellfire-and-brimstone Trump voters.
We know that secular culture is hostile to Christianity and to the notion of One True God. Secular culture has many gods: Hollywood celebrities, New Age gurus, nature spirits, and so on. And because people believe and follow these gods, that’s why their morality is all over the place—why they change lovers like they change their socks, why they pursue pleasure first and reap the consequences later.
But look: Can you say you Christians are any different? Look at the sex scandals and the abuse that have rocked religious institutions. Why should anyone trust the church? Why should anyone listen to you? Did you read the headlines this summer of the ways Christian boarding schools collaborated with the government to kidnap, kill, and forcibly reprogram indigenous children? Why should anyone trust organized religion? It’s just as the Bible says: “God’s name is blasphemed because of the people who claim to be God’s people.” (see Ezekiel 36:20-22)
The question you have to ask yourself is this: Does my faith in Jesus Christ change my behavior in such a way that people want to know more about him? Or does it make them turn from organized religion in disgust?”
Here’s the thing: *These are not my words. They are Paul’s. If you follow the argument of the above paragraphs, you’ve just read through the structure of Paul’s letter to the Romans, 1:14-2:24. Go and read it. Also, stop using two verses out of context from this letter as justification for anti-gay attitudes. If you do, then YOU are the reason people don’t want to hear anything you have to say about God (Romans 2:24).
Because it has gone viral several times over the last few years. I’ve gotten a variety of replies to my short social media post on “The Unborn” from 2018. Some are indignant, claiming that I’m unfairly characterizing pro-life people. (Sometimes people put scare quotes around their words when they call me a “pastor” or a “Christian.”) Some are more measured and say that there are pro-life people who are advocates for other forms social justice. I appreciate these nuanced interactions.
Some of these replies are in the same style as #notallmen and #notallwhitepeople. They say that my words are unfair, and that “lots” or “most” people who are pro-life are also advocates for immigrants, the poor, etc.
I’m going to condense my replies here.
First, I do have deep respect for people who have a consistent sanctity-of-life ethic, whether they be Roman Catholic or Mennonite or Jain or atheist vegetarian. I love talking with people of integrity who live out their values, even if we disagree on abortion policy.
Second, if you read my words carefully, you’ll see that my beef is not so much with people who are pro-life as people who co-opt the term “advocacy.” People who do real advocacy, whether it’s for disabled persons, formerly-incarcerated persons, children, immigrants, women, or black and brown people ALWAYS recognize that their advocacy is part of a much larger intersectional web. You can’t be an advocate for formerly-incarcerated persons, for example, without recognizing how many people in prison suffer from untreated mental illness, so you wind up dabbling in mental health advocacy. You can’t be an advocate for homeless teens without meeting many who have been kicked out of their homes or run away because they are LGBTQIA, so you wind up learning about the importance of Family Acceptance.
Real advocates often try to figure out how to make their lives consistent with valuing the people for whom they advocate. They try to eliminate ableist language from their vocabulary, for example. They try to center the voices of the people most affected, or to approximate as nearly as possible. Advocates for black and brown people fund organizations led by black women. Real advocates, allies, and accomplices, in other words, are always doing intersectional work. Every oppressed group has their pain magnified by other forms of injustice.
This is not the case with most self-styled advocates for the unborn. When I’ve argued with pro-life pastors that contraception and comprehensive, medically-accurate sex education are effective ways at reducing abortion, they consider these “separate issues” or “red herrings.”
See the difference?
As some pro-life folks have pointed out, the unborn do not have their own voice to be centered. This is true. All the more reason that people who want to claim the mantel of “advocate for the unborn” should be advocating for parental leave and universal health care for parents; because we shouldn’t leave newborns without the full and available care of their caregivers. Their parents are the closest voices we have to the best interests of children, a principle widely recognized in our laws. Yet it is parental voices opting for abortion that get silenced by “advocates for the unborn.”
Which brings me to my third point: we have data and five years of recent historical experience which indicate that it is certainly not the case that “most” or even a small fraction of pro-life people embrace an ethic consistent with biblical mandates to care for “the alien, the widow, and the orphan.” 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump and Roy Moore, and a majority supported the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, even though all of these men were serial harassers of women. 75% of white evangelicals continued to support Trump as he imposed severe restrictions even on *legal* immigration. They continued to support him even as his Attorney General embraced a punitive policy of tearing families apart at the border when they applied for asylum, creating a whole new generation of orphans who may never be reunited with their parents.
When people get indignant over my words, I point them back to this recent history. Appeals to “family values” or “an ethic of life” simply don’t hold up to the historical facts. We all saw who got thrown under the bus just so that pro-lifers could stack the Supreme Court.
For context, I wrote my original piece in 2018, during the US Senate campaign in Alabama, when Roy Moore was running against Doug Jones for US Senate. The dominant public discussion among pro-lifers was that Doug Jones, an attorney who prosecuted and put away the white supremacists responsible for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, supported of the non-existent practice of “partial-birth abortion.”
When it came out that Roy Moore was a well-known creepy guy who harassed teenage girls at the Gadsden Mall, one local official even defended him because “Mary was a teenager when she had Jesus.” In spite of all that, 80% of white evangelical voters who showed up at the polls still voted for him, many because they just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for someone who supported abortion.
So I still stand by the words I wrote in 2018 on historical, demographic, and logical grounds.
If you believe you are the exception or you know people who live a life consistent with and ethic of the sanctity of life, I am happy for you. We need more such people with louder voices. We need more people who seek peace who have diverse opinions and beliefs to do justice in the world.
But let’s not be dishonest with each other. Being an advocate for the unborn costs most conservative Christians nothing. And I have no desire to offer to God sacrifices that cost me nothing.
A few years ago, I was chauffeuring my teenage son and his friend to an event. They were in the back, telling stories and laughing about how annoying and hilarious young siblings and little children are. I was eavesdropping from the driver’s seat, but couldn’t help sharing an anecdote or two about my memories of my son as a toddler. We laughed and I concluded with, “What they say is that when you’re a grandparent, you’ll be able to enjoy toddlers for awhile, then give them back to their parents before they get annoying.” My son and his friend were silent for a moment. Then she said quietly:
Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids.
There was no sadness or despair in her statement. She said it patiently, as though she were having to explain to the adult in the car that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. There was something else in her voice—pity maybe? She had accepted it, but she was aware that I was still under the delusion that our human species has a future.
She did not have to say any of these other things out loud. It was all in that one statement: Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids. Don’t you know we are living in the middle of an extinction event? That older generations lit the fuse, handed us the climate bomb, and waltzed off into the short story we call human history? That they got to name themselves the Greatest Generation, and Boomers, and other snappy terms for the ones that followed; but that the generations after ours will remain nameless?
I’ve been in ministry for twenty years. I answered the call to ministry because I was convinced God had put a passion in my heart to reach folks the church wasn’t already reaching, and that God wanted me to be part of a Reformation or an Awakening or a Great Emergence that was on the horizon. The vision wasn’t so grandiose (usually) to think that I would lead such a change, but that it was coming whether I participated or not; and wouldn’t it be better to be part of it? I’ve always been partial to the notion that some of the most dynamic, important, world-changing movements of the church have been on the periphery and the margins, or even outside of it, so that’s where I wanted to be, so I’ve often seen myself as a reformer and outsider. Yet her statement made me realize how entrenched and institution-bound my vision remained. Though addressing climate change has always been important to me, I couldn’t feel the existential threat that the next generation takes for granted.
I wondered: as a pastor, what do I have to offer my son’s friend? Certainly not Bill Hybel’s notion that “the local church is the hope of the world.” Not a parental figure’s patronizing cliché that everything will work out. Not a scientific assurance from Jeff Goldblum that “life finds a way.” And if I offer her Jesus, she’s likely to hear the name as institutional Republican Jesus who believes in “beautiful, clean coal,” puts immigrant children in cages, and builds oil pipelines through sovereign indigenous territory and over drinking water.
I retain this conviction that “God so loved the world, the cosmos, that God gave God’s only child.” The salvage project God has been working on since the beginning was never about humans only, but the whole created order. God’s movement both in creation and redemption is about self-giving embodiment, sharing with us the divine breath and walking beside us both in human and more-than-human form.
I’ve also taken to heart Gus Speth’s prophetic words: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
So when I heard the voice from the back seat say Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids, I heard God say to me, this is on you, buddy. Your job is spiritual and cultural transformation.
But this affirmation and valuing of creation is not the theology I see proclaimed and lived out in the institutional church. And I’m not just pointing the finger at right-wing pastors like John MacArthur who claim the earth is disposable. Instead, my home denomination is about to split over how people should be allowed to have orgasms. 81% of white evangelicals and over half of white mainline Protestants have demonstrated they have no problem with white supremacy and fascism. And although there are wonderful churches full of good people who help the poor and offer vacation Bible schools and tell wonderful heartwarming stories, most of them are too timid to acknowledge that a substantial portion of people under 20 don’t expect human civilization to continue.
(For the record, I think my young friend’s view of human collapse is overly pessimistic, but not because I expect Christians to suddenly start loving the world the way God does. I think God’s plan for human survival has more to do with Jeff Goldblum’s quote than Bill Hybel’s. The Good Lord was crafty enough to make human beings tenacious about survival and sexuality, so I suspect “life will find a way.”)
It has become increasingly clear to me that the church can either pursue its dream of Great Awakening or Reform or Renewal for itself, or it can join God’s project of passionately loving the world and salvaging what we can. It cannot be about both. If we are going to be in a different relationship with our planet, we cannot do so without the help of non-Christians, of people well outside what we normally think of as “church.” If we are to love the world with the self-giving love of God, we will have to submit to learning from indigenous people who have been practicing reciprocity with the more-than-human world far longer than we white Christians been practicing our various forms of extractive capitalism.
Yes, it may be possible that in losing our institutional life we will save it. That sounds a bit like our gospel, after all. But whenever progressive Christians speak hopefully about this Great Ecological Awakening, they sound the most Asleep.
Confronting climate change means confronting — well, everything. White supremacy. Patriarchy. The way capitalism doesn’t actually pay for the real costs of energy and resource extraction, but only shifts the burden of paying for them onto the shoulders of the poor and of future generations. For the American church, these taboo topics are more sacred than God. We Christians don’t mind saying “YHWH” out loud, but these other things must be only whispered in church, never spoken from the pulpit.
I’m still following the call of God, but a young prophet spoke the Word of God to me from the back of my car: Will the church care about climate change? Will you love the world so much that you will give yourself for it?
Our generation isn’t going to have grandchildren. I pray that we will hear this young Jonah and repent. Maybe God will spare us after all?
*(I am grateful to Susan Bond for the giving me a new metaphor for understanding “salvation” as “salvage” in her book Trouble with Jesus.
*I am grateful to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass for such a wonderful description of reciprocity, and to David Abram (whose work I have not yet read) for the notion of the “more-than-human world.”