The Gift of Place
Indianapolis First Friends
Pastor Bob Henry
April 22, 2018
Job 12:7-10 (NRSV)
7 “But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
8 ask the plants of the earth,[a] and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
9 Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
10 In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.
I want to begin this Earth Day message with a spiritual exercise and some queries to focus our attention on this morning. I have barrowed these thoughts from Ignatian Spirituality. If you are not familiar with Ignatius of Antioch (who lived 35-107AD) – he was considered one of the Early Church Fathers, a disciple of the Apostle John, one of the first Bishops of the Church, and ended up a martyr for the faith.
Often when Quakers have sought to return to the “faith of the apostles” (as our history notes) they find great commonality and connection with Ignatius’ profound words in his writings on, what he labels, “Spiritual Exercises.” This is because his work is foundational in the mystical tradition – a tradition that Quakers find themselves categorized in often.
If you have ever read any of the work of Quaker Richard Foster or even the Renovaré curriculum it is heavily influenced by Ignatius’ work. It was Richard Foster who taught (and I believe heavily borrowed from Ignatius) that there are three great books that guide our lives, 1) the book of scripture, 2) the book of experience, and 3) the book of nature.
As well, Ignatius was one of the first theologians to connect our spiritual exercises with ecology and creation. So, it seems natural or fitting to utilize his work this morning on Earth Day.
As most Ignatian Exercises begin, I would like for us to begin this morning with taking a deep breath. (Notice how your whole body relaxes as you breathe in and exhale.)
Take another deep breath. (This time notice that the air coming into your lungs through your nose is free and plentiful: even in this meetingroom, there is more than enough air for everyone.
Finally, take another deep breath. The atoms of air that you breath in and out are a shared gift – shared both with other humans and with the creatures and plants of the Earth.
This air constitutes a radical physical connectedness with all other living beings.
Because of our intricate interconnectedness with each other in and through the natural world, what has been called environmentalism – concern for that which is around us becomes ecological awareness.
Trileigh Tucker speaking on this says,
“The word ‘ecology’ comes from two Greek roots: oikos meaning ‘house’ and logos, meaning ‘reason’ or ‘discourse’. When we shift from speaking of the environment (that which is around us but does not include us) to speaking of ecology, then, we are thinking in a new way: not about a distant object, but rather about the network of relationships within which we live: our own house, our home.
Or as we say this morning – EARTH.
To help you connect with your experience of this place – earth, I want to help you make that connection this morning through a simple Ignatian exercise.
Take a moment to allow your mind to travel to the first natural place (or place in nature) to which you felt connected as a child, or another natural place to which you’ve felt a strong connection. (You may need to close your eyes to really travel back to this place.)
Imagine you’re in that place again this morning.
What do you notice with your senses?
What does it look like?
What does it smell like?
What does it feel like?
What does it sound like?
Maybe what do you taste there?
Is there something particular in that place – a tree or a stream or an animal – to which you have a special attachment?
How do you feel as you return there?
What feelings does it invoke?
What good memories are associated with this place?
The reason I wanted you to think about these things is because much of our connectedness in this world is understood and driven by landscapes or what I will call, place. Ignatius believed that our psychology and spirituality are intimately connected with place. Also, we have a physical connection to our geography as well as the psychological and spiritual.
Yet, many people today feel misplaced – and no longer comfortable in their changing surroundings. Some would go as far as saying they lack a sense of place because they no longer know their neighbors.
Ask yourself? Do you know the neighbors that live on either side of you?
How far down the street do you have to go before you do not know them at all?
Who, if you needed help, would be the neighbor you would call on?
If someone in your neighborhood needed help, would they call on you?
We in our world today, do what the authors of “The New Parrish” call “Living above Place” which is “the tendency to develop structures that keep cause-and-effect relationships far apart in space and time where we cannot have firsthand experience of them.”
What happens when a society, like ours, lives above place for long enough is that we begin to live a cocooned way of life, unaware of others and how we effect each other.
You can see this happening first hand with the way we create online communities and only associate with people that support our own views. It is what is dividing us politically as a country and creating fear-based organizations, biased media, and country club religions.
And I believe “Living Above Place” is not only talking about our human neighbors but also those that we may not even consider neighbors - for instance our neighbors of water, energy, food.
Again, ask yourselves? Do you know where your water, energy, food comes from? What kind of relationship and first-hand experience do you have with them?
We must admit that we have a very intimate, survival-based relationships with these basic essential needs, but many people cannot identify from where they come, because again we have cocooned ourselves from knowing.
What if we did not know where our life partners, spouses, or closest friends came from? (Honestly, they probably wouldn’t have a prominent place in our lives.)
To know that my wife comes from North of Detroit, MI, that she grew up on a farm, that her family raised cattle, is rather important to my understanding of her, today – and knowing where our water, energy, food come from is vitally important as well.
Ignatius says that becoming aware of this background knowledge is essential to us “living in the flesh” or what I have been talking about the last few Sundays – personal incarnation. We must admit that we are creatures of the flesh – that we are dwellers in a specific place, and that we express that of God’s creation in our own beings.
Knowing our place is key to understanding our incarnated lives and what God is doing among us and through us in our neighborhood and world.
Chris Smith and my friend John Pattison in their book, “Slow Church” expound on this by saying,
“Cultivation of our communities involves attentiveness not only to the rhythms of our specific places but also to the day-to-day sorts of choices we make and the sort of rhythmic order we impose on those places. As our roots grow deeper in a place, we can’t help but want to see that place thrive. Seeking the flourishing of our places not only involves caring for them – keeping them clean, planting gardens, living lightly on the land – but also caring for the people who live here with us, of course.”
To cultivate our communities, we will first need to examine our places and those we engage with in that space. Ignatius encouraged this as part of his spiritual exercises, because he knew that the natural world and our human co-habitants affect us psychologically, physically, and spiritually. In Exercise 60 and 160 of his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius asks,
“Going through all creatures, how have they left me in life and preserved me in it…the heavens, sun, moon, stars and elements, fruits, birds, fishes and animals.”
“…the various persons: and first those on the surface of the earth, in such variety, in dress as in actions: some white and others black: some in peace and others in war: some weeping and others laughing, some well, others ill, some being born and others dying, etc...”
See, when we start to see the way all of creation takes care of, preserves, and sustains us, then we must ask ourselves how we in-turn are taking care of all of creation – animals, plants, our neighbors of all walks of life, beliefs, cultures, etc... Because, to cut out any of these would be detrimental to our own growth. This is a connection to creation relationship that must be acknowledged and continually worked through.
The modern day farmer-prophet, Wendell Berry, wrote about this very thing in his essay, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” which can be found in his book, “The Art of the Commonplace.” Berry says this,
“We will discover that for these reasons our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God’s gifts into His face, as if they were of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them…We have no entitlement from the Bible to exterminate or permanently destroy or hold in contempt anything on the earth or in the heavens above it or in the waters beneath it. We have the right to use the gifts of nature but not to ruin or waste them…The Bible leaves no doubt at all about the sanctity of the act of world making, or the world that was made, or of creaturely or bodily life in this world. We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy.”
(repeat the final line)
This reminds me of a poem by Quaker Laurent A. Parks Daloz, a Peace Corps Volunteer, educator and environmental activist. He writes,
Stop for moment beside a young cedar to listen
And breathe in the life swarming around you.
A soft breeze brushes your cheek;
You can feel the silence.
For a thrumming instant you are one with it –
At such moments, we don’t simply believe,
We know that we are woven into the mat of interdependent life.
This is not sacred belief;
It is sacred knowledge.
We know in our bones that we are an intimate part of all life,
Not simply what surrounds us in the present,
But of all life in all time.
The oxygen we breathe,
The nourishment from the plants beside us,
The elements beneath our feet –
All come to us from the most distant past
And will endure in some form into the unimaginable future..
We are ineluctably a part of all space and time.
So the first thing, we are called to do on this Earth Sunday is to become aware of our PLACE and the sacredness of it. We need to take time to allow ourselves to get out of our cocoons and to descend from “living above place” to living in the present moment with our neighbors in which we have been given as gift – this place we call the earth.
To help you ponder more this week, I have included some detailed queries on the back of the bulletin – you may want to ponder them as we enter waiting worship this morning.
· What have I learned from listening to God in the earth, rocks, trees, water, and animals? How has this learning affected or changed my life?
· In what ways does my daily life exemplify, reflect, or belie my respect for the oneness of Creation and my care for the environment?
· Am I willing to change the way I live and make sacrifices in my lifestyle in order to preserve the earth, air, and water for future generations? What changes am I willing to make now?
(From Practicing Peace by Catherine Whitmire)