Happy Birthdays

Inspired by Ephesians 3: 23-28
It wasn’t until my only daughter’s first birthday that I began to appreciate birthdays. There was something about driving this non-verbal human, weighing less than 10lbs, home from the hospital just hours after giving birth that awakened me to the miracle that each birthday represents.  Even when this stage of overwhelming physical vulnerability is outgrown, it is an entirely new vulnerability that quickly rises to take its place; the fear of messing your kids up as much or more than your parents messed you up.

I realized quite early in parenting that what I said mattered much less than what I modeled. However obvious this is when we think of the strategic matching of words mouthed with movements modeled to educate children around language, it still remains shocking when we witness our children acting just like us in the most unpleasant of postures. Perhaps even more unsettling are those moments when, as parenting adults, we realize we have become just like our parents.

What remains within our reach is the relationship that develops during the time we are gifted with; the tone behind the words we speak, the generosity and grace wrapped in our behaviors and the shelter our love creates

The responsibility of giving birth extends far beyond the quest for survival. The recognition of physical vulnerability, while always first on our radar, is unfortunately the furthest from our control. What remains within our reach is the relationship that develops during the time we are gifted with; the tone behind the words we speak, the generosity and grace wrapped in our behaviors and the shelter our love creates, offering our children the opportunity to grow into the person the world convinced them they were never to become.  Birthdays, as celebrations of life, are communal reminders of the promise of a new beginning and the hope placed in something beyond our selves. In each new birth lies the expectant possibility of a lived experience greater than our own.

I’ve spent my week recovering from Annual Conference; the once a year gathering of lay and clergy United Methodists from our 4-state conference. I can report that there was little (if any) conflict related to the denominational crisis over the full inclusion of LGBTQIA persons. From my perspective, it was barely a part of the agenda given the enormity of the space its consuming in the national media. The reality for the Mountain Sky Conference is that we have functioned as a fully inclusive Conference for at least the past four years.

Still, being aware of the wider crisis of the denomination, it’s embarrassing to share what upset me about Annual Conference. I wouldn’t even name it but it’s something I cannot stop thinking about. This image I can’t shake of a trash can full of empty plastic water bottles. I wish I could just let it go but it is seriously nagging at me; that as a Conference we bought plastic water bottles and threw them in the garbage because in Billings, Montana there isn’t the option to recycle.

My mother was an avid recycler. She organized the recycling, she paid extra to have access to recycling and she would drive to recycle things she couldn’t pay to have recycled from our street pick-up service. She was the recycling police. Not only was it important that she recycle but that everyone else recycle as well. It has been my inability to let go of the Conference’s lack of recycling which has reinforced the truth that, no matter how much we resist, most of us eventually become some version of our parents.

Unlike my mother, however, I am less inclined to enforce the practice of recycling regardless of how central I believe recycling to be in the life of a Christian disciple. I imagine it would be greeted as inconsequential in the context of other more visible crises. Worse yet, I have thought, the Conference leadership will ask me to write and present a petition inviting congregations to form committees to talk about the benefits of recycling. The thought of which immediately causes my body to twitch involuntarily until I eventually fall into a coma.

Perhaps, for me, it is also that speaking up about the religious imperative to recycle seems a less than worthy battle to wage in the presence of aging parents struggling to stay in a home they are no longer able to maintain. Silence becomes an act of grace in a life so newly limited. All these realities being reasonable explanations, the fear of speaking only to remain unheard is the tie breaking vote. Silence sweeps the polls promising protection against the likely scenario that, now having been told all the facts, still nothing would change.  A despairing response for those who, upon accepting the reality of our environmental crises, see clearly that everything must change.

In spite of an overwhelming amount of data proving that our patterns of consumption are destroying the planet, a cohesive religious narrative injecting a moral imperative that would shift our behaviors remains low on the docket of social issues.

According to a 2015 study in the journal Science, The United States contributes as much as 242 million pounds of plastic trash to the ocean every year. According to the Ocean Conservancy, every year, an estimated 8 million to 12 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons already in our marine environments. This is the equivalent of dumping one New York City garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every day for an entire year. If these trends of plastic pollution continue, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. Already plastics affect nearly 700 species in the ocean with researchers estimating that 73 percent of deep-water fish in North Atlantic Ocean have eaten particles of plastic.

The plastic filling our oceans and poisoning our aquatic friends is only part of the story of our problem with pollution. But it is an important part. It is an accessible part.  It is an offering of information paired with an invitation toward a new relationship with religious consumerism revealing the carnage of a disposable culture. A common-sense correction is to lessen our purchase of plastics as individuals and communities and to commit to recycling the plastic we do use even if it means shoving 400 plastic water bottles in your suitcase and flying them back home. (I did not do this. I did think a lot about how I might be able to do this).

At its heart, the climate crisis is a spiritual issue. In the Christian tradition that I know best, and in other faiths as well, the world is God’s creation; it belongs to God. Humanity’s role is tending and caring for creation.
– Betsy Hardy

In spite of an overwhelming amount of data proving that our patterns of consumption are destroying the planet, a cohesive religious narrative injecting a moral imperative that would shift our behaviors remains low on the docket of social issues. Even when verbiage for such an imperative rises into the public sphere, the message is drowned out by the collective practices of consumption we model to the same audience. We care about creation until it becomes inconvenient or conflictual or costly. Betsy Hardy, the Coordinator for Vermont Interfaith Power and Light, writes; “At its heart, the climate crisis is a spiritual issue. In the Christian tradition that I know best, and in other faiths as well, the world is God’s creation; it belongs to God. Humanity’s role is tending and caring for creation.”

My mother may have taught me how to recycle but it has been my faith that has taught me why recycling one plastic water bottle, when there is an ocean filled with plastic, still matters. We are, as Paul reminds the people of Ephesians, called to live together as though we were in the very presence of God. This belief in God’s active presence among us initiates an ongoing, radical re-ordering of relationship. For Paul, this was represented in a vision of community where both Jews and Gentiles, both slaves and free, have equal access to full belonging regardless of gender identity. For The Land, this will be represented in a vision of community where our patterns of consumption support an understanding of all sentient beings as equally holy and deserving of life. In the presence of the Living Christ, the community turns away from the distraction of difference defined by their times and turns toward one another to cooperate in God’s healing work of a broken world.

Speaking on the possibility of the faith community’s awakening to their place and responsibility within creation, Hardy writes, “When people of faith around the world acknowledge this and decide to stop the destruction and begin taking care of creation, transformation will take place. We’ll recognize the sacredness of all creation, animate and inanimate, and we will treat it with respect. This internal transformation of hearts and minds will lead to changes of thought and action. We’ll think about the impact of our decisions and actions, including purchases, travel, and lifestyle. When this attitude of honoring creation permeates society, the change will be profound.”

Perhaps more quickly than we would hope, it is our children who become our teachers. This, I believe, is the case with our own institutional parents. Existing with sight free from the blind spots inherited by well-meaning procedure and policy, I believe it will be the witness of The Land in which the Conference might see the gaps present between our beliefs and our behaviors. In a new community, in this new life, we have an enormous opportunity to do things right. To become the communities our congregational predecessors dreamed once of being. To remember and respond to God’s presence in our midst as we model to our parents, to the world, the continuation of this great re-ordering that their own prophetic witness initiated us into.

In our infancy stages, The Land is still learning to walk. Our physically vulnerability well recognized, the patterns of our footsteps have begun to illuminate the responsibility for the path we now tread. Less concerning than the moments where our bottoms mark the trail, will be the direction of the steps we take and the story their pattern speaks to those who will one day follow. Already these footsteps lead to new directions, new ways of being in relationship to one another and to the world; a re-ordering of our belonging in which we are not apart from creation but existing within creation giving name and space to all things. On our first birthday as a community of faith, may we show gratitude for the incredible prophetic witness of our Conference’s full inclusion of all people into the United Methodist Church. All the while remaining restless for the expansion of our circle of care to include those beyond the human species; an equalization of creation beyond one group of humans, beyond one type species… welcoming and showing hospitality to all of creation.