Ecological Conversion


It was in 12th grade physics class with Coach Hatfield that my world went into upheaval. While never a Boy Scout, I was a very prepared person. I had a solution for every scenario that met with doom. The trick is not to panic. Your car goes off the bridge into the water—brace for impact; as soon as you hit, undo your seatbelt, and ensure that the window goes down before the car is submerged. This is why you need a hammer in your car, by the way, in case the electronics don’t work. Remember that the heaviest part of the car, probably where the engine is, will sink fastest; you are going down at an angle so don’t freak out…if no hammer and the window isn’t going down, be resourceful, even if it means using your smartphone. Focus on the middle of the window—the weakest point. Once the window shatters, it takes about two minutes for the car to fill with water, so take a huge breath, and swim upward following the bubbles or toward light.

That day in physics I realized my plan for what to do in a falling elevator would not work thanks to Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion, since force is equal to the change in momentum per change in time, F=MA. Suddenly, I realized that, like the elevator, the passenger is in free fall, and therefore my plan of jumping at the last second was futile. This was a very discouraging comprehension—this idea of potentially being in a tumbling elevator and having no escape plan; and so, for at least half my life I’ve avoided elevators. It’s human nature—we tend to avoid problems we have no idea how to solve.

Racism, poverty, inept legal systems, health care, global warming…after reading Pope Francis’ Encyclical, I realized how everything is connected. We all have our threshold of compassion, and sometimes even mentioning global warming sends our hearts and minds into hibernation. A few years ago, had I been sitting in the pew and learned the sermon had anything to do with climate change, I would have mentally checked out. Kids are back in school, new activity calendars and school activities are piling up, fall projects are calling to me, the political campaigns are already driving me crazy, and I want to come to church to escape insurmountable issues.

We probably all agree that we are caught up in what is dubbed The Great Acceleration where data reveals that after the year 1950 major detrimental changes in the climate are directly linked to our global economic system. Carbon dioxide levels are at all-time highs, with 1000 tons being dumped into the air every second, resulting in a global increase in temperature occurring three times faster than the rate a hundred years ago. By the end of the century, oceans will increase seven to twenty-three inches; and, though the United States comprises 5% of world population, we emit 25% of the world’s global warming pollution. NASA’s website on climate change and global warming provide exceptional research and science, and I love research and science, but my true passion lies in relationships.

Our Creator, Creation, and humanity are very intertwined and I wonder if climate change is a connectional problem than can be solved relationally?
At the heart of relationships are our attachments. Attachment is a primal need. We all want to be connected—to someone, to a purpose, to a community, and I wonder if we’ve lost our connection with the Earth.

How often do your feet touch the earth? How often do you gaze at the moon? How often do you escape from urban concrete surroundings and allow nature to surround you? Going to Cabela’s does not count as engaging nature!

How can we feel connected to the earth when we are immersed in technology and human construction? The cabin nestled in the woods becomes a mirage. We’ve lost our synchronization with the Divine rhythms that nourish our soul; for urban lifestyle desensitizes us to Creation, unless thunderstorms awake us in the middle of the night, or droughts result in water rationing, or cataclysmic wildfires capture our attention.

The sacred connection with our planet is a relationship that the Native Americans understood. We could possibly trace climate destruction to the Trail of Tears, when the discovery of gold led to greed severing the sacred relationship between a people and their home. Sadly, many Indian tribes were placed on reservations occupying land that is very susceptible to climate change, like the Choctaw Indians in southern Louisiana who live on land being destroyed by stronger hurricanes and the damage caused by oilrig drillings.

I’m not sure what history narrative shapes your understanding of the indigenous people who lived here long before Columbus arrived, but they were a people who respected the Earth. The opposite of attachment is disconnection. The Europeans brought with them their disconnected relationship with the Earth, a disconnected relationship with humanity, and a disconnected relationship with our Creator. In 1493, when Pope Alexander the Sixth learned about the discovery of gold in the New World, he issued a papal bull granting official ownership of the land and its people to the Spanish monarchy. The pursuit of gold led to enslaving Native Americans and, I think, created a philosophical paradigm where we see the Earth as an object to plunder. These sentiments are echoed in the 1969 song, In the Year 2525, “I’m kinda wonderin’ if man is gonna be alive, he’s taken everything this old earth can give, and he ain’t put back nothing.”

I wonder what it will take to reverse climate change. That leads us to our scripture reading—coming from Paul’s letter to the Church at Corinth focusing on reconciliation and transformation. Second Corinthians 5:17 was a Bible Verse I memorized in college, but I learned it like this: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come.” I was taught that if someone accepted Christ as his personal savior, then he was a new person; but, in seminary, I had an epiphany as I did in Physics class, but at a much more intense level. It was in Greek class, and in the Greek translation, the verb “is” and personal pronoun are missing from the second part of the verse, so the true translation is, “If anyone is in Christ, new creation.” To me, this changed the meaning from the individual to the universal—if anyone is in Christ, new Creation.

Think about the first time you thought you were in love—you could not stop thinking about the person, wanted to be with them, talk to them—you could not contain the love you felt and your friends probably let you know that! The love Christ has for us is similar, and when we embrace that love, then there is a new creation, for that love creates ripple effects that are transformative. We, who are loved, have the capacity to love others, and to love the Earth.

My first recollection of the relationship between humanity and Creation occurred when I was four years old. On Earth Day in 1971, the non-profit organization “Keep America Beautiful” aired an actor portraying a Native American paddling a canoe in the wilderness, then followed him as the river emptied into industrialization where smog and pollution replace nature. He docks the canoe on a shoreline infested with trash, and comes upon a highway where a passenger of a white convertible sports car nonchalantly tosses a bag of trash that explodes open at his feet. From the trash-pile, the camera then focuses on his weathered face, where a solitary tear streams down his cheek. This ad had a profound effect on me as a kid and I honestly think I can say I have never littered.

In order to really approach our relationship with the Earth, we must understand WHY we have the relational attachments with others that we do, and the disconnections—this is the circle of life—the web of relationships. Healing will involve reweaving the most foundational relational connections to this sacred circle. War, bipartisanship, racism, poverty, injustice—will only lead to global repercussions on our relationship with the Earth.

In 1971, along with The Crying Indian ad, one of my favorite authors published a book with a plea for environmental awareness, and I have a feeling many of you have read it—recently made into a movie. Dr. Seuss writes in The Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

We have to care, we have to love, and we have to see the connection. The poet-politician Pablo Neruda writes, “We are each one leaf on the great human tree.” I wonder if we are just repeating the Trail of Tears, continuing the pattern, but instead of Spanish Monarchs, we succumb to capitalism. Activist and author Chris Hedges observes, “The corporate elites, blinded by their lust for profit and foolish enough to believe they can protect themselves from climate change, will not veer from our path towards ecocide unless they are forced from power. And this means the beginning of a titanic clash between our corporate masters and ourselves.”

For Americans to be part of reversing the effects of climate change, a total relational ecological conversion process is needed. Conversion is a total transformation from one mode of living/thinking to another. The late Marcus Borg writes, “Conversions are about fundamental changes in how we see things—our lives, what is real, and what matters most to us.” Borg explains how his political, spiritual, and religious conversions lead to convictions. In order to help the planet, we have to be convicted, and that will take conversion.

Climate change is a complicated, complex problem. When we, as a society, convert our thinking to understanding the individual steps it takes to impact climate change, then we begin to see that we can make a difference. Making a difference is tough. This past week I had the, beyond words, experience to see how perseverance and passion can make a difference. I serve on a Department of Defense Committee formed in 1951 by then Secretary of Defense, George C. Marshall, to help with women’s equality in the military. Almost two years ago, our committee began working on what it would mean for women to attend specialty training schools, such as the NAVY Seal school and Army Ranger school. Friday, two women graduated from Ranger School. Slowly, conversion is occurring in the military. People believe, they are convicted, that gender equality is possible. I do believe that reversing climate calamity is possible, but for me, I cannot continue to succumb to consumeristic laziness.

I can park my car instead of sending carbon emissions into the air because of the convenience of the drive thru. I can carry around a reusable water bottle instead of consuming plastic ones. I can buy locally grown produce. I can remember to bring reusable bags into the grocery store—and maybe even challenging stores, as in most countries in the world, not to provide plastic and paper bags. I can instill in my children an understanding that turning off lights and electronics helps energy efficiency. I can recycle and compost. But most of all, I have to be aware of how I treat others—people who are different than I am, people who are poorer than I am, people who come across my path, and my tendency is to stay in my introverted cocoon.

Change is needed. Our challenge is to connect with that which gives us joy, ask yourself what you WANT to do. When we are joyful, we are emotionally healthy, and healthy people build healthy communities, which create healthy cultures.

I thought it appropriate to end with a quote from a great environmentalist, Albert Einstein:

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’—a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

If anyone is in Christ, new creation. Amen.