Sunday, October 31, 2010

Planting hope. Growing community.

"I didn't think it would really be possible," one tree-planter commented, incredulous and smiling.  "I really didn't."  Rain dripped down his rain jacket hood and on to his face.  But even the constant rain didn't dampen his spirit or cloud his sunny attitude. 

I knew just how he felt.  For a group of us--most of whom didn't even know each other--had just pulled off the seemingly impossible.  In just over 2 months 7 of us had organized, funded and implemented the planting of the first ever interfaith Peace Forest in Denver.  Over 100 people--Jews, Christians, Muslims and our friends--showed up to plant over 100 trees.

We hadn't planned on rain, mind you.  In fact, there had been no appreciable moisture in Denver for months.  Nor was rain forecast for the day.

But 10.10.10 dawned cloudy.  As the day wore on cloudy became overcast.  Overcast gave way to drizzle.  And drizzle flowed into solid rain.

Eighty people had pre-registered to join us in tree planting.  Would they all show?  We wondered.

Not only did they show, but 20 others came along as well!  It was a lovely mix of Tongans, Kenyans, Somalis, African-Americans, first generation Americans from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and white folks.  There were children and adults, rabbis and pastors, Tongans in traditional dress, Muslim women with head coverings and Jewish men with yarmulkes.  It was quite the cultural experience.

As one friend put it, "We had Jews, Christians, Muslims and one Republican."  Needless to say, he was the one Republican.  And even he felt strangely at home.

As volunteers arrived, we checked them in out of the back of a Suburban, with the tailgate down and the window flipped up.  As they signed in, people put on a name tag, with an accompanying sticker to denote their religious affiliation, if any.  And then promptly found others with the same symbol.  Little circles of comfort formed as people waited in the rain for the opening blessings.

"C'mon folks!" I prodded good naturedly, "the whole point of the sticker was to meet someone from a different faith tradition!" I could hear little waves of self-conscious laughter.  Even so, not many moved.  But by the time we began planting, little interfaith groups had formed to plant the trees.

But not before Rabbi Stephen Booth-Nadav sounded a shofar to begin our momentous occasion.  And not before Rev. Peg Newell retold the story of the fig tree that Jesus wanted to curse because it wasn't producing.  "Just give it one more year," a servant begged.  In the same way that we say about peace, "Let's give it one more year and see if it produces."  And not before Atonio Tolutau prayed in Tongan.  And not before Carema Cook said, "It's appropriate the the Muslim prayer comes last.  For in Islam we draw upon all the wisdom that has come before us." 

And people stood in the rain and listened and prayed, and smiled.  .

And then we put shovels into the ground, mixed in soil conditioner, and carefully planted trees--living symbols of our ability to restore creation.

Most of the trees came in 5 gallon buckets, so it wasn't too hard.  But the trust test of interfaith cooperation came when it was time to plant (3) 700-pound trees that Fatuma got donated for us.  One Jew and one Republican worked a two person auger to dig the holes.  Then about 7 people rolled the trees down the hill and into place by the Sand Creek.

As Fatuma helped shovel and then spread mulch around the very large trees, her white head covering accentuating her joyful eyes and bright smile, the Republican said, "This is what I feel best about," pointing to Fatuma.  "You just don't see this face of Islam that often."  "THIS is America," I said as he shook his head disbelieving, "This is my America."

It was an iconic moment. 

Yes, we planted trees.  Yes, we helped restore the old Stapleton Airport area.  Yes, we created habitat.  Yes, we helped to right ecological imbalances on the planet.  But we did something even greater than that.

We gave people the opportunity to do something they crave:  something unreasonably positive.  And unreasonably good.

Perhaps the coolest part is that our Peace Forest Project Team doesn't want to stop meeting.  So Monir, Saba, Fatuma, Jeanette, Betsy, Rae Jean, Ria, Heather, Carissa, Betty and myself are now planning quarterly interfaith dinner and discussion evenings.   And our next planting projects.

It turns out that what we planted was trees.  And what grew was community.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Sabbath Effect

Jonathan Ormes, retired NASA scientist, and I made plans to meet while I was on my way to lead a women’s retreat on the topic of sabbath and the environment. I wanted to talk with him about my theory that practicing sabbath is an environmentally friendly discipline.

“Absolutely,” he said. “In fact, we can tell from space where and when people are observing the sabbath all around the world.” “Really?” I asked, “from space?” This was better than I thought.

He said, “We can see that levels of nitrous oxides—byproducts of fossil-fuel combustion, among other things—fluctuate during the week. They go down on Friday in Islamic countries; down on Saturday in Israel; and down on Sunday in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Those levels don’t go down at all in China; the numbers stay pretty steady throughout the week.  This lowering of nitrous oxide levels is called the sabbath effect or the weekend effect.” In other words, the less people drive and the less industry produces, the cleaner the air.

Listening to Dr. Ormes, I marveled at the convergence of science and spirituality. The Scriptures call us to be stewards of the creation; science lets us know how we are doing at it.  According to Dr. Ormes, not too well. For the elevated presence of nitrous oxides during the week is connected to ozone smog and acid rain, which are dramatically changing the atmospheric composition.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the intended outcome of sabbath observance––being refreshed (Exodus 23:12; 31:17)––can also be translated as “paused-for-breath.” Childhood asthma is on the increase, as are other respiratory difficulties. All are linked to the quality of our air.  Sabbath rest literally clears the air and gives us breathing room. In fact, sabbath reveals itself as the first environmentally friendly biblical covenant. Sabbath is good for people and the earth. It is not a stretch to say that faith grounded in the Bible is “green.” Sustainability is built into the very fabric of creation.

Which day should you observe sabbath? Some Christians are adopting the practice of the early church by honoring the creation on the seventh day of the week, Saturday, and the Lord’s resurrection on the first day of the week, Sunday. Others reclaim the dual emphases of creation and Christ together on Sunday. Another option is to carve out mini-sabbaths at another time during the week. It may not matter as much which day you set apart as how you start to synchronize your life with the rhythms of creation so that healing may begin.

Sabbath is important for reducing our stress and our impact on the planet, but do not make it impossible to experience sabbath. If you cannot start with a day of rest, how about an hour? Then month by month expand that hour until you have reached a full day of rest. I invite you to try it. You just might like it. I will be right alongside you.

This blogpost is excerpted from Green Church:  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rejoice! by Rebekah Simon-Peter and published by Abingdon Press, 2010.  Buy your copy here:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Too Much Roof, Not Enough Sky

I can tell when I've had too much roof over my head and not enough sky.  I get grumpy.  The top of my head hurts.  And I feel lonely in my otherwise cozy home.

That's the state I was in when I attended the recent Annual Meeting of the Wyoming Association of Churches.  Between knee problems and the damned computer, I hadn't spent much time in my hiking boots this summer.  It was more time indoors than outdoors.

By the time I got to our Annual Meeting, it had been raining for several days.  No big desire to get outside there, even though it was gorgeous Grand Teton National Park.  One rainy morning featured outdoor worship led by the inestimable Rev. Dr. Sally Palmer. A gifted liturgist, she used nature itself to convey the message of worship.

When do you feel part of the whole of creation?  she asked us.  

With rain dripping on the hood of my jacket, my mind wandered back to the first time I ever went hiking.  It was a small, narrow path in the leafy woods of Connecticut, just wide enough for one person.  There was something about hiking on that footpath through the trees and ferns that made me feel right sized. 

Ever since then, hiking on small narrow paths through leafy woods has brought out that same sense in me. 

So why not do it more? 

Is it just me, or does it seem that the older you get, the less permission you have to spend time outdoors? After all, there's WORK to be done: most of it requiring one to be hooked up to a laptop, modem, cell phone, or other electronic device. Or getting in a car and driving somewhere.  There's precious little time to just be.  Especially outdoors.

Fast forward one week.  I was in Spearfish Canyon in South Dakota's Black Hills National Forest.  Another gorgeous place.  I was there to lead the 10th Annual  Ecumenical Women's Retreat.  Right outside the lodge where we were staying were trailheads that took one deeper into the canyon.  But alas, it wasn't part of my agenda to hike.  I had WORK to do--to get ready for the day ahead.

But something or Someone lured me away from the lodge and the parking lot to the trailhead beyond.  There I found myself walking, picking up speed as I went, up a narrow trail through a colorful fall forest.  Three quarters of a mile later I had ascended 1000' and was standing on top of the canyon wall.  Enshrouded in fog, I was breathing hard, in need of water and exhilarated!

Coincidence that I found myself here?  I think not. 

A few weeks ago, I realized that being in nature is what gives me a sense of purpose, spiritual connectedness and raison d'etre.  It's the place that makes me happiest.  It wipes away my worries, slows down my mind, and connects my soul with the great I AM.  It doesn't require a certain amount of money or time or skill or expertise.

But more of us are doing it less and less.  Richard Louv, in his best seller, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder" writes about the pitfalls of not spending time outdoors:  depression, lack of creativity and imagination, lack of problem solving skills.

All of that has increased with digital and electronic play having taken the place of unstructured time outdoors. Not only for kids, but adults too.

Two winters ago, I wound up with Vitamin D deficiency, a clear sign of too much roof overhead and not enough sky.  Too much work and not enough play.  I'm bound and determined to not let that happen again!

This Wednesday night begins the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, in which people spend time in a "sukkah" or booth as a sign of God's providential care during the Exodus from Egypt.  Interestingly, this temporary structure is kosher only if you can see sky through the roof!

Now, that's my kind of holiday!

No sukkah in my back yard this year.  Even so, I'm shutting off the computer, logging off of Facebook, and getting outside.  Under the big night sky of Wyoming. 


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Participatory Universe

What does it mean to be made in the image of God?  I have been thinking about this a lot lately.

According to Genesis 1 where that concept is found, God speaks and the world comes into being.  Then God blesses, and multiplies. And the world grows in richness, depth and complexity.

I used to think this notion of creation was weird.  God speaks and things come into being?  C'mon.  Archaic at best.  Simplistic and childish at worst. 
But I'm outnumbered, by biblical writers anyway.  The writer of The Gospel of John declares that Jesus is Logos or Word.  You know...In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  Pretty heady stuff.

Turns out this idea of creating through the spoken word has a correlate with quantum physics.  That is, there is no such thing as objective reality which can simply be observed.  Every observer is actually a participant!  Since the days of Einstein, we've figured out that we live in a participatory universe that responds to our being.  What I'm saying is, Word has power.    Not just Jesus' word, but ours too.

Maybe then to be made in the image of God, is to speak/create a world that is rich, blessed, and interdependent. A world that works for all of us of: all people, all creatures, and the planet itself.

So I've taken this idea of being made in the image of God seriously.  And I've  been experimenting with speaking a new world into being.  One that blesses and enriches everyone and everything.

My current experiment?  The Peace Forest.  I declared it--without knowing where or how it would be planted.  Before we had a place to plant, trees to put in the ground or money to do it, I declared it.  Just to see.

Then I invited fellow Jews, Christians and Muslims to help design it.  My delightful companions got on board.  Now we are all declaring the existence of this Peace Forest.  In addition to finding trees, inviting volunteers, seeking donations, and the like.

The cool thing is that it's working.  And something that never existed before now exists.  Even before the day we plant.  Out of it new community is growing.  One that values both religious faith and the environment. 

Yup, the spoken word is powerful.

Of course, it's not just declaring a thing that makes it so.  One has to take actions consistent with that declaration.  God spoke and took action.

So now I'm asking you to take action to make this a reality:  Here's what I'd like you to do:

1.  Speak about the Peace Forest to others. Tell your friends.  Announce it in your religious services.
2.  Pray about it and give thanks for it. 
3.  If you can, sponsor a shrub or tree or grove. 
3.  If at all possible, come help us turn the soil and plant a tree or two.  This year, we're starting with 100 trees.  We'd like at least 100 people to help us plant.

You know what's cool?  Not only are we restoring Mother Earth, we are restoring faithful relations with one another.

It is, after all, a participatory universe. The way things are responds to the way we are.

Can I get an Amen?

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Peace Forest

There I sat at a conference table with Betsy, Saba, Fatuma, Monir and Jeanette. We were not your typical tree-hugger types.  Three of us are Muslim, one is a cradle Christian, one is a former Evangelical Christian with New Thought leanings, and me, well I'm a United Methodist clergywoman who was born and raised Jewish. (More on that in another blog!) Two of us wore head coverings, and half of us have reached the half-century mark.  Yet, there we were, working out our manifesto for the Peace Forest.

The Peace Forest, an initiative of BridgeWorks, is what I think of as a Mother Earth Mission project. Let me explain.

Often, United Methodists, and other mainline Christians, think of mission work as providing assistance to those in need--whether the needs be material, financial, emotional or even spiritual. We excel at mission work in the wake of natural disasters. For instance, we were on the scene in a jiffy after Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake and myriad other storms.

But it's becoming clearer that it's not just people who need to be rescued and restored from natural disasters. It's the earth itself.
As I wrote about in a recent issue of Circuit Rider, ecological imbalances lie at the heart of many natural and unnatural disasters.

Our Peace Forest will address one of them--deforestation--while building bonds of community between different religious people.

This project brings together people from the three Abrahamic Faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) to plant a living symbol of earth care. One that can make a profound difference for the planet.

But, as Jeanette pointed out, it's hard enough to unite people around care for the earth. Let alone embarking on real interfaith work. Perhaps some will be attracted to the environmental aspect of our work and not care a hoot about religion. While others will be deeply committed to interfaith work and not be moved by environmental concerns at all.

Can we work together? Can we find others who will want to work with us?

I feel really confident that we will. In fact, I'm very jazzed about about this idea!

A few years ago, I read A Common Word Between Us. Written by Muslims to Christians and Jews it highlights the sacred "words" we share in common such as love of God and love of neighbor.

Reading it, I realized we not only have a common word between us, we share a common world! If we, who can agree on love of God and love of neighbor, can also discover the common words of creation care in our sacred texts, then we can bring about a positive revolution for each person on the planet.

That's what the Peace Forest is about: nothing more, nothing less! And it all starts with trees.