Tending to the Soils

The most important thing to me about this year of Earth Church gatherings is patience. Whenever I start a new project I’m so eager to bring it about to fruition, to set ambitious goals, and get working. But Earth Church is all about adopting the pace of nature, which is inherently slow. And learning from Her wisdom. So our presence on the farm this year is just about taking a pause, listening to the land, holding the intention of a new relationship to earth for each one of us, and being a blessing in the space… just embuing it with our hope.

 The perfect analogy for Earth Church 2019 is that we’re cultivating good soil. And everything about Earth Church will be both literal and figurative and that’s what recontextualizing worship is, hearing our sacred stories in a new way by having the land as our teacher and guide.

 Jesus had something to say about good soil and its potential to yield “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown…” (Matt 13:3-9)

There’s perhaps nothing more spiritually compelling to me in scripture than references to the harvest, it is a reference to eternity and to all of our own potential to bear to spiritual fruits, that has an awe-inspiring expression right here on earth. It fascinated the ancients and it fascinates me; the abundance that comes from a tiny seed, if only nurtured properly. After naming my own daughter Harvest, new and deeper understanding of its significance continue to come to me wave upon wave, and I feel they are a part of my own story because she is a part of me.

 Three years ago, when Harvest was just a little bit over one, I attended the Just Food conference at my alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary. I was the only person there with a child, and because they didn’t offer childcare I thought they should all have to deal with my bringing her along. She was handing people toys in the lectures, and picking tomatoes from their garden (Princeton’s “Farminary” institute is the host of the conference - I hope to make future connections between Earth Church and the work they’re doing there) but the only part that was a problem was keeping her still during their formal Princeton-esque Presbyterian worship in pristine Miller Chapel. What a missed opportunity, I thought, to not have worship on their farm property - its a more inclusive and appropriate space. But I digress…

The keynote speaker that year was Fred Bahnson who wrote a wonderful little book called Soil and Sacrament where he describes - “there is an entire ecosystem in a handful of soil; bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms. Through their breeding and dying such creatures vivify the world… Soil is not dirt. It is a living organism, or rather a collection of organisms, and it must be fed. Soil both craves life and wants to produce more life, even a hundredfold. The true profundity of soil [is] difficult to gauge. One day I slid my hand into one of our greenhouse beds, gently pushed down and kept pushing until my arm vanished and my shoulder touched the soils surface. It had seemed then as if I could keep burrowing downward, until my entire body was swallowed by the warm, dark earth…. Soil is a portal to another world.”

Indeed. And yet how we regard it as mundane. Conventional agriculture experts view the soil as merely a convenient way to hold up a plant while it is fed from the top in the form of ever increasing doses of chemical fertilizers. Joel Salatin describes this process as “superimposing a mechanistic mindset onto a biological world…” But nature, in contrast, feeds the plants from the bottom up, through the soil. So for conscientious farms like Roxbury the health of the soil is the top priority.

 So our priorities will be likewise. We’re devoting this year just to the soil. Because that’s what spirituality is. While people who have a purely existential and material view of the world will seek happiness by superimposing artificial pleasures from the top, the spiritual person looks inward to find true joy, or what we call in Christianity “the peace that surpasses all human understanding….”

MIT Professor Otto Sharmer, who grew up on a farm in Germany, wrote “…our interior condition is like a field… each field has two dimensions: one that is visible, whats growing above the surface, and one that is invisible – that is the quality of the soil. The same applies to social fields. We can see what people do, the practical outcomes that they accomplish in the visible realm. But what we rarely pay attention to is the deeper root condition: the source and the interior condition from which we operate… The invisible source dimension of the social field [is] the quality of relationships that we have to each other, to the system, and to ourselves…Our job is to cultivate [that] soil.”

Earth Church is looking to integrate the rhythms and seasons living inner selves with the living organism that is this earth – and to reflect more largely on our living in relation to this planet through a spiritual framework. Liturgy and ritual will be the container that holds this reflection:

On Ash Wednesday, we burned prayers of confession into ashes and blended them together with soil. During Eastertide we blended biodynamic preparation #500 and blessing these fields, nourishing the soil while taking a moment of pause as we walk, each one of us, reflecting upon what is truly nourishing to us, versus what superficial and fleeting, not what feeds our wordly appetites but what feeds our soul. I think those things are inherently slow to produce “results,” and thats why they’re liberating. We seek to be a community of liberation; in the earth’s liberation we will find our own. The soil is being tended to. The fruits are yet to come. But we have great hope.

 

 

Enacting the Legacy of Ecofeminist Theology

Perhaps one of the best works of the late Rosemary Radford Reuther’s is her book Gaia and God. Recalling the legacy of indigenous traditions that revered the Sacred Feminine and deconstructing the male diety of western patriarchal religion, she embraces neither but paves a new reconstructive path forward that is creative and filled with spirit.

Her last section, “Building Communities of Celebration and Resistance,” struck me as so perfectly describing Earth Church. I hope she would be proud of what we’re trying to do.

She says: “How do we carry on a struggle to heal the world and to build a new biospheric community in the face of this intransigent system of death? It is my belief that those who want to carry on this struggle in a sustained way must build strong base communities of celebration and resistance. By “base community” I mean local face-to-face groups with which one lives, works, and prays….

There are three interrelated aspects of the work of such local communities. One is shaping the personal therapies, spiritualities, and corporate liturgies by which we nurture and symbolize a new biolific consciousness. Second, there is the utilization of local institutions over which we have some control, our homes, schools, churches, farms and locally controlled businesses, as pilot projects of ecological living. Third, there is the building of organizational networks that reach out, regionally, nationally, and internationally, in a struggle to change the power structures that keep the present death system in place.

We must start by recognizing that metanoia, or change of consciousness, begins with us. This does not happen all at once, but is an ongoing process. We all have been shaped to misname evil, to seek invulnerable power, or else to capitulate to such power systems of consumption and can hardly imagine alternatives to them that might give us greater peace and wholeness, even though the scramble to “keep up” in the present systems leaves us ever more insecure, anxious, and exhausted.

We need healing therapies and spiritualities of inner growth to let go of fears and open up to each other and to the world around us, to learn how to be, rather than to strive. The struggle to change the death system must be deeply rooted in joy in the goodness of life…

We need to take the time to sit under trees, look at water, and at the sky, observe small biotic communities of plants and animals with close attention, get back in touch with the living earth. We can start to release the stifled intuitive and creative powers of our organism, to draw and to write poetry, and to know that we stand on Holy Ground…

In addition to personal therapies and spirituality, we need corporate liturgies as well, to symbolize and express our altered consciousness. Unfortunately most of our institutional forums of worship are tied to alienated, patriarchal consciousness. Much of their worship is literally “deadly,” although some are open to partial transformation. Thus communities of new being and consciousness need to become their own liturgists. They need to learn to shape corporate liturgies to mourn together for violated lives, midwife healing and new birth, and to taste a new Creation already present.

Such communities can also learn to carry liturgy to the streets, in protest marches and demonstrations that cry out against the death system and visualize renewed life in ways that can catch the imagination of others who participate with them or watch them. We can call on all the arts - song and music, dance, and mime, posters and banners, costumes and puppetry - to shape the public liturgies of biospheric politics.

Another essential work of local communities is to begin to live now an ecologically healthful life. We can see our own homes and other institutions over which we have some control, such as schools or churches, as “pilot projects” … such efforts will function as learning and consciousness-raising processes. As we try to implement some changes, it will become quickly evident that our church, school, workplace, and even our home, are not autonomous. They are dependent parts of larger systems that operate, to a large extent, to tie them to present wasteful ways of functioning. As we try, for example, to implement recycling of household watstes, we run into city-waste-dsiposal systems and resistance to new forms of trash collection that are integrated into recycling industries. We began to recognize these systems in their local and regional expressions, and even beyond, and to put names to those who control the decisions.

This leads us to the third role of local communities, to become political bases of organizing and action. Here again it is useful to start locally, where we can be concrete and where there is often some possibility for real change. When our group has formulated some clear policy changes, for example, toward a recycling cetnered coordinated with city waste management, we can network with other groups in the city. We can form a larger organizational base, attend meetings, and eventually run candidates for office. We can find ways to pressure local business, both negatively through boycotts and positively through petitions and discussion.

Such local organizing efforts will also reveal the extent to which local government and business really have local control and the extent to which they too are parts of national and international political and economic systems. This is a part of a learning process in which we put names to links in the chains of control, and imagine ways to put pressure for change on the weak links in those change. Local “green communities,” begin to link up with one another across the country…

…Being rooted in love for our real communities of life and for our common mother, Gaia, can teach us patient passion, a passion that is not burnt out in a season, but can be renewed season after season. Our revolution is not just for us, but for our children, for the generation of living beings to come. What we can do is to plant a seed, nurture a seed-bearing plant here and there, and hope for a harvest that goes beyond the limits of our powers and the span of our lives.”

Planting The First Seeds

I was so grateful to see so many friends join with me this Ash Wednesday 2019 to bless the beginnings of Earth Church. There is such a deep yearning in my soul to connect more deeply with faith, our community, and the earth, with the creation herself as our teacher and guide.

People came from throughout Columbia County and all the way up to Albany in response to an invitation to come together in a posture of humility and repentance before nature, seeking a renewed relationship to Her. I chose Ash Wednesday as the day to begin this journey because it’s a time when we look inward as to the reality of that relationship.

And here’s the facts: we are in an era of mass extinction -  in the words of conservationist Aldo Leupold – “a human-caused biotic holocaust” in which 6 species go extinct every day, that’s 1 species every 4 hours.  40% of the worlds birds are in decline. 25% of mamals are endangered,  30% of reptiles and amphibians – all due to loss of habitat, invasions of non-native predatory species, pollution, and overhunting/fishing.

 40% of the world’s topsoil is gone due to erosion caused by industrial agriculture. Tropical forests are currently being destroyed at the rate of twenty-five million acres each year. Half of the forests that once covered the earth are now gone.

Less than 20% of the world’s population (in the US, Europe, and Japan) consumes over 50 percent of the world’s industrial timber and 70 percent of its paper.  And in this country, we use 20% of that lumber to make shipping pallets and crates – which are mostly discarded.

 And the United states which is home to only 4.4% of the world’s population is the second largest contributor to carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, accelerating the already dire climate crisis which by the end of this century the earth’s temperature  will have risen by as much as 8 ½ degrees, causing delicate ecosystems to be thrown out of balance and the sea levels are to rise anywhere between 1 and 6 feet.

 The sheer magnitude and urgency of our ecological crisis is so overwhelming. Its easy to feel helpless and small, and its tempting to not acknowledge the gravity of whats happening. That’s why what we’re trying to do here is reconnect. To the earth, to each other, and to something greater than ourselves – so that we realize how much power we really have. Because we are provided for by the incredible generosity of the land, held in the hands of a loving God, and journeying together with a community – this empowers us to finally open our eyes, knowing we. have. all. we. need. to take our next steps and to change.

Here were my remarks from Ash Wednesday.

The Christian narrative of humanity’s relationship to God follows three basic parts: we are created, we are fallen, we are redeemed.  We enact this drama throughout the liturgical year in the life of the Christian community through sacred days like Ash Wednesday. And the season of Lent which begins today is the time during which we reflect on how we are fallen… I believe that humanity is fallen. And all the preceding criteria is ample evidence.

 And so for me there is no coincidence that the biblical narrative fall of humanity takes place in a garden – a garden in which every single thing that man and woman could ever want was provided – and yet they wanted more.  That story is not about some man named Adam and some woman named eve – it is a story about all of us. The earth gives us everything we could possibly need, and yet we want more.

 Ash Wednesday is also about mortality. It is essentially about how we are not God; in that we are both imperfect and mortal. As is tradition we anoint one another with ashes saying the words “remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return…”

 But while Ash Wednesday is uniquely positioned for reflection on our relationship to the planet within a framework of repentance and redemption, it also also presents us with precisely what is been problematic about Christian theology as it relates to ecological stewardship.

 The normative Christian paradigm has been that our fallenness is intrinsicly intertwined with our mortality. Essentially that we are sinful because we are embodied and finite beings. Which is why this day itself needs to be re-claimed, and that’s what we are doing here.

The philosophical root of this association comes from Greek philosophy, the platonic view that there is an eternal, disembodied, intellectual “essense” or “soul” that exists apart from the physical world, which is trapped in our bodies, considered the source of all evil… but the true home of the soul is quite literally above the earth in the cosmos, the astral upper level where it can in Plato’s words “contemplate truths that lie beyond the heavens.” The death of the body is what frees the soul to its true home.

 The apostle Paul who authored several books in the New Testament was a Roman citizen and was highly influenced by Greek thought. And therefore even after his conversion, he was only able to understand his newfound faith through the lens of this dualism between body and soul.

“The wages of sin is death” those are amongst his most famous words… we die because we are sinful, we gain eternal life because of Christ, whereby our fleshly bodies will become immortal spiritual bodies at the resurrection … and some of the most resounding themes of his texts are warnings against the corruption of the world, and the temptation flesh… and that this world will one day pass away

 That’s whats problematic. Because if some otherworldly existence, the true home of the soul is a place we will one day escape to… why would we care about this world?

James Watt who was the secretary of the interior during the Ragan administration was once asked by a congressional committee as to why his agency was acting contrary to its expressed mandate… and he responded “I don’t know how many generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”

 That we don’t see ourselves as a part of nature; that we see ourselves as separate and other, awaiting a true home in heaven… that is the intellectual source of our alienation from creation. It is the mother of dualisms like spirit versus matter, heaven versus earth, mind versus body… it breeds the false dichotomy between nature and culture, between wilderness and civilization, etc. And all of these exist with implicit hierarchies that translate into dualisms of human over nature, man over woman, white over black that are responsible for not only ecological destruction but also patriarchy, colonialism, and white supremacy.

Rosemary Radford Reuther, the founder of eco-feminist theology was among the first to articulate this broad indictment of dualism as responsible to social injustice and harm to the earth. If you’re not familiar, the term ecofeminism refers to the fact the earth, and women – are oppressed by a singular force. Which is why in our language you hear women associated with the earth: mother earth/virgin forrest/raping the land…

She cites that the identification of the essential self and soul as intellectual, disembodied, spiritual and male – like God has been considered male – is that oppressive force. This is how she articulated that problem:

 “man believes he can master nature, not by basing himself in it and exalting it as an independent divine power, but by subordinating it and linking his essential self [that is the soul] with a transcendent principle beyond nature which is pictured as intellectual [as opposed to embodied] and male. This image of transcendent, male spiritual deity is a projection of the ego or consciousness of ruling-class males, who envision a reality, beyond the physical processes that gave them birth, as the true source of their being. Men locate their true origins and natures in this transcendent sphere, which thereby also gives them power over the lower sphere of "female" [of earthly] nature…”

But what I want to reclaim today for myself and for a new kind of faith community, is that this view is not inherent to the Christian faith. Early Christianity rejected dualism in favor of the Jewish view of the essential goodness of creation and unity with it… in fact they did not know what to do with Paul’s dualistic cosmo-anthroopology and set it aside for at least a generation. That was until Marcion, a Christian teacher from Pontus began to systematize and promote the teachings of the Apostle Paul.  

So I think its time we get back to our roots. Lets revisit the creation story from scripture. In the first chapter of Genesis, God creates each being in immense love and care for both sentient and non-sentient beings… and after each we hear this litany “and God saw that it was good…” which is how God regarded the human

And in the second chapter we’ve just read. God creates the ADAM– the Hebrew word which means human… forms him from the very soil of the earth… the “ADAMAH” the ancient Hebrews clearly understood the association.

We belong to the earth, to the very soil beneath our feet. In fact in Genesis 2, each act of creation is done as an act of relationship. God saw that the garden needed to be tilled, needed someone to be responsible with and for it - humanity inherently in relationship to the earth.

And so God breathes into the soil and the air that fills the human’s lungs and gives him life comes from God’s own breath – humanity inherently in relationship with God.

And lastly, God saw that the human should not be alone – and so he is created a partner from his very body. “bone of his bone’s flesh of his flesh” – all of us inherently in relationship with one another.

Genesis teaches us early on, that we were created interconnected and by our very nature to nurture and steward our relationships – with God, with the earth, with one another. We all long for this. We all were made for this.

We are part of the earth and it is a part of us. We are not separate, nor are we above. The story in genesis 2 counters the anthropocentric view of the creation that everything on this planet was created with a function to ultimately serve humans. In fact, that idea originates from human sin itself...

If you recall from the creation story… the fall of humanity is wanting to be God. When we are not. That is our sin.

My favorite theologian Rhinehold Neibuhr was the first to articulate how pride – how the human tendancy “to reach beyond the bounds of his creaturelness” is the root and heart of all sin. In an essay to the Stanford dialectical society, the Rev. Martin Luther King writes “…Niebuhr says sin is what results when man tries to find security for himself outside the tension of the dialectical relation between time and eternity.”

In short, sin is believing we are more than we are. We are not transcendent beings. We are part of the earth. Mortality is just our nature… because we are a part of nature, and we can in fact celebrate that, that death is ultimately our destiny. To return to the soil from which we came. Much like in ancient Hebrew, in the English languge we also have a close association: human and humus (the soil) - Humility. 

Humility, knowing that we are not hierarchically above, but equally cherished by God just as rivers and oceans, plants and animals, the air that we breathe… that is the humble posture we can undertake for a truly rich and meaningful season of Lent.

Because this means God is not up there somewhere… but God is right here and every living being on the earth has something to teach us about God. Another world is not yet to come, another world is here and now and yet to be discovered. And our ultimate redemption does not consist in escape from the world to some far off heaven, but the transformation, and the healing of the world we have now. Amen.

Come journey with me…

I am very certain of my calling in this world, and of my place within it. My purpose is to create space to hold the celebration and the grieving of the community and all its sacred occasions and seasons within a liturgical framework. Ritual and liturgy are fundamental to who we are as humans. The first art ever produced by humanity, cave drawings of buffalo dated 36,000 years ago… was produced in a ritual ceremony. Ritual and liturgy is necessary as a container for self-reflection, internalization of the deeper values of the community, and the kind of social cohesion that leads to unified, collective action. That is what I am called to, trained for, and good at.

Columbia County, New York is my home. I planted roots here. Quite literally. My children’s placenta are both planted beneath apple and cherry orchards that we began in our backyard. I made a decision 3 years ago while exploring a call to another church in which I would never have to worry about job security that I wasn’t going to compromise the direction God is leading me for financial security. And I’ve known for quite some time that my congregation, while growing and giving more than ever before, can no longer afford 100% of my time. They’re healthy in every way except financially. Which is also a sign of health in and of itself – that we attract people of all income levels including people on assistance and or even find themselves homeless.

 Nevertheless, this year I began work at the church at 5/6 time, next year I will be ¾ or even ½ time. And while I’ve prayed to God for years, “whats next?” and gone through all sorts of discernment about what kind of “side hustle” might help put food on the table and pay school tuition, I have come to the conclusion that I have a tremendous gift of time that I can utilize to share my gifts with others for free. And come what may. I yearn to be an integrated self and to bring my passion, creativity, spirituality, love for nature, and activism together in one project.

 I know that my calling is to Columbia County, NY. And I know that I am called to gather people together in spiritual community; to liturgize and give voice to our deepest impulses for good, to explore their Source, and to become more firmly bonded together in the process. I am called to people who wouldn’t otherwise participate in “church” as it is. And to provide an alternative opportunity.

Thus my vision for Earth Church came about. I asked myself “what kind of church would I want to attend? And have available to me locally here in the place that I love? What would be compelling to me and feed my soul?” The answer was a church in nature. And a spiritual community that is totally anti-institutional. A spiritual community with no building that generates electricity bills and burns oil and has a board that oversees it, and whose time is consumed by fixing boilers, writing budgets, and paying bills. A church that isn’t a burden and won’t burn us out but rather energize us for the struggle for justice. A place where people of all backgrounds can feel free to explore their connectedness to God and Creation without judgment - this is the next phase of my spiritual and vocational calling. My vision is for a completely non-institutional church; a church that doesn’t compromise integrity for efficiency or its own survival; a church that cultivates awe by re-locating the Sacred outside of brick and mortar buildings and back into God’s good Creation…

Earth Church is primarily inspired by the Earthschooling movement, where children explore the outdoors every day regardless of seasonal challenges. Winter worship around the fire. Summer worship out under the sun. I am immensely grateful to Jody Bolluyt for allowing us the opportunity to explore our belonging to Creator and Creation in this context.

I hope you will come and help shape this vision as a place where your spirit might be renewed to faithfully live out our collective calling to preserve the Creation. All are welcome!

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