Seize the Life that Really Is Life

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                              Sept 29, 2019

I Timothy 6:6-19

This past Friday was truly an inspiration. Children, youth and young adults around the world are finding their voices on behalf our voiceless earth. It was an amazing experience marching in the rally and being led spontaneously in chants by high-pitched, little but loud voices. The children were taking the lead with great passion and the adults were following.

There are an incredible number of children, youth and young adults all around the world who are very worried about the irresponsible way in which we older adults are treating the environment. Some of them are taking vows to not have any children because they cannot ethically bring children into a future of environmental disaster. I am learning to listen to these voices and not to dismiss them as over-reactive. Children and youth cannot vote, nor do they do not have the resources to hire policy analysts and lobbyists. And so, they are asking us, as adults who do have the power to make changes, to attend to their concerns.

Why should we, as a church, take a stand on this? Why am I mixing up politics with religion? I’ll give you a few reasons that have convinced me. The first is a quote from a scientist by the name of Gus Speth. He is the former dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He said, “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 those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy…to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Environmental degradation is, fundamentally a spiritual issue. I believe this, and yet I was still very surprised to read a letter from the newly appointed Anglican Bishop of Rupert’s Land, Geoffrey Woodcroft. He asked all Anglicans in our area “to make climate crisis and the restriction of fossil fuel extraction a matter of conscience” in these fall elections. Secondly, he urged every Anglican parish to participate in last Friday’s climate justice strike with a parish banner. I think the Anglicans are taking the lead on this issue.

I would like to tell you part of my own story that has brought me to this conviction that the church needs to take a radical stand on environmental justice. I am the daughter of a forestry entomologist, who devoted his career to the control of insect outbreaks, such as the Spruce Budworm and the Mountain Pine Beetle. I grew up in a forestry research camp at the foot of Castle Mountain in the Rockies and, so the story goes, I knew what a pine cone was before I knew what an ice cream cone was (I’ve made up for lost time since). Environmental concern and love of the outdoors were built into my DNA.  And then, I discovered religion. I had a born-again experience and joined a Baptist church in Victoria. When I mentioned my concern about the environment and about poverty to my church, I was told that that was great as long as I didn’t confuse it with the gospel. I struggled with this separation of the body from the spirit. It didn’t seem to line up with what Jesus talked about in the gospels. His second most frequent topic in the gospels is about money and poverty. How could I talk about Jesus and ignore a significant part of what he said because it was deemed to be political? It just didn’t make any sense to me. And then, I vaguely remembered from my United Church Sunday School days that the United Church preaches what is called the social gospel. This means the whole gospel—everything Jesus talked about—for the whole person—not just their spirit. I decided to return home to the United Church and to what I believed was a more faithful following of the teachings of Jesus.

Fast forward a few decades to my Hildegard of Bingen pilgrimage last fall in Germany. The landscape was absolutely stunning, the air heavy with the scent of ripening grapes and fall flowers. But I began to hear a concern that belied the beauty. The famous Rhein Valley Riesling grapes were starting to die because they could not tolerate the increasing temperature. Farmers were beginning to pull out the Rieslings and replace them with heat-tolerant varieties. Just last week, I read that 100 million trees in Germany have died over the last year because of droughts and storms. Ground water in eastern Germany is the lowest since records began in 1961 and their pine trees have been bleached a sickly brown. They are dying. Europe is particularly vulnerable to violent storms and increasing temperatures because its weather is dominated by the jet stream.[1] And so, it’s no wonder that it is taking a European youth—Greta Thunberg—to ring the alarm bells for the rest of the world.

Now—to bring this back to the Bible. Our lectionary reading for today from I Timothy is about selfishness and greed—two of the top causes of environmental degradation, according to Dr. Gus Speth. This passage from I Timothy tells us to practice contentment with what we have while resisting the urge for more. It seems as if the more we have, the more we feed the cravings for yet more. We crave things to feed our addictions to clothes, to food, to alcohol, to money, to power. Underneath these cravings is a spiritual hunger. At the very heart of our faith lies a deep contentment and peace that quenches this spiritual hunger. If we can access this heart of our faith, we will finally be set free of our cravings that destroy our bodies, our families, and our environment. It is difficult to settle deeply into the contentment and accompanying generosity of our heart of hearts. But with spiritual nurture and discipline, it is possible. This is what we are trying to develop at our Monday night spiritual nurture sessions—beginning tomorrow night.

Our politicians of all stripes dangle before us promises that feed our cravings for more. The questions our youth are asking are much more mature and they are begging us not to seek more for ourselves, but to give all that we can for the health of our earth and for the most vulnerable. This is being faithful to the teachings of Jesus. When we are able to reach this level of spiritual maturity, we can challenge our politicians to cease their superficial promises that only feed our cravings and instead follow the leadership of our children and youth to ask our politicians to address the deeper concerns that really matter.

I Timothy urges us to resist the temptations of more that destroy life and instead to “seize life that really is life”. What does Paul mean by this phrase? Life that really is life means living contentedly with what we have and being generous in spirit as well as in resources. Because what really matters in the end is not how much we had, but how much we shared. Someone once said that they’ve never seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul.

One biblical commentator of this passage wrote, “when in doubt, be generous. When angry or frustrated or irritated, be generous. When your self-interest or pride is being attacked, be generous. When longstanding sibling rivalries erupt, when sacrifices need to be made, when there’s an opportunity for hospitality, be generous.”[2] I would add, knowing that we, as adults, have the power to make decisions that can heal the environment, be generous. Our children and our youth are depending upon us.

 

[1] Helene Fouquet and William Wilkes, “Climate change threatens Versailles’s lush gardens.” Winnipeg Free Press,  Monday, September 23, 2019, B3.

[2] L. Gregory Jones, “Be Generous: Setting the Stage for Forgiveness and Healing,” The Christian Century, October 2, 2007.