Inspired by Romans 8: 18-25
This story begins near the end of what once was a great new beginning.
See, we were born on this planet during an extraordinary age known as the Cenozoic Era. Unlike the experience of any other humans before us, this Era of “New Life” welcomed us to a planet thriving with incredible plant, insect, and mammalian diversity. Without having done anything to earn this or make this happen, our first breaths were taken in an eccentrically upgraded version of the Garden of Eden.
It is this exotic and abundant planetary birthright that makes the story we live in now all the more unfathomable. Born into the richness of air fragrant with flowers and roots, our last breaths will be taken in the desolate and dusty air of the Sixth Mass Extinction Event. Our lives are stretching from the miracle of the incredible diversity on this planet toward the melancholy of mass extinction, an Era termed by biologists as the Eremozoic Era, meaning the age of loneliness.
This is not the story we were meant to write nor is it the story we intended to leave as a legacy.
Like the thousands of animals and plants groaning from the abuses of human greed and ignorance, the religious framework for our own sacred connectedness with all of creation is in critical danger of disappearing. Again, we seek the sacred roots of a narrative that will once again ground us in hope for a fertile future. And though we have effectively redacted the words of the divine to embolden our delusions of superiority and practices of domination, it will be these words from Romans that pull us back down to the ground.
For the whole of creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
It is not the narrative of God’s created order that is lost, but our place in that order that has been forgotten. And in our forgetting, all creation groans in the prison of a story unrecognizable to its bright and beautiful beginning.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes that “Stories are medicine.” “They have such power,” she writes, “they do not require that we do, be, act anything – we need only listen. The remedies for repair or reclamation of any lost psychic drive are contained in the stories.”
If our own stories have left us stranded from our own best interests, if they have isolated us from understanding our own created purpose, perhaps we may need to begin with a story that is not our own.
The Pawnee people birthed this story from a rooted and fertile narrative alive with the fluidity between species and the interconnectedness within all of creation. This is a story of remembering the relationality of the created order held in the heartbeat of Mother Earth. This is a story about love. A story about loss. A story about grief and its irreplaceable role in the struggle for redemption.
There once was a young boy named, Black Eyes, who found himself desperately, hopelessly, (some might say, pathetically), in love with a young girl in his village.
Each morning and every evening when the young girl was sent to get water from the river, the young boy would sneak away and walk to the river with the young girl. And every morning and each evening, when the young boy would meet the young girl, the young girl would tell him to go away.
One evening when the girl had grown weary from the boy’s persistence she turned to him and said, “Boy, I want you to know that I do not care for you. I can never marry you and I do not want you to talk to me anymore.”
Although we could have predicted this ending, the boy himself had not. His eyes swelled with tears and his heart throbbed so much that it stuck to the top of his throat and sunk to the bottom of his stomach. The boy, humiliated and shocked, found himself brokenhearted, and so, in his sorrow, he went home, packed up his bow and his arrow, and left the village.
Traveling east the boy’s tears carried him to a prairie dog town where he spotted a girl he had never seen before. The boy went to her and soon they lived together in her lodge beneath the ground.
Black-Eye’s mother, missing him, went in search of her son. Following the place where the boy’s tears had formed a stream the mother found herself standing in a prairie dog town. The woman, believing that she would never again see her son began to cry. All day the mother lay in the prairie dog town and wept as the prairie dogs came to witness to the mother’s pain.
When darkness fell and the woman fell asleep a beautiful young woman came to her in the dream, telling her, “Woman, you must not cry anymore for your son, for he is married to me. The girls of your people refused to marry him, and he came to our village where we fell in love and now live together happily. Your son has not forgotten his people but there is only one way he can return to you. You must go to your home. In his quiver, there is a black arrow that the boy made himself and of which he thought a great day. Bring that arrow and lay it near the hole. Then you must lie down and wait.”
Waking the mother ran home to find the arrow. Returning with the arrow to where the girl had spoken to her, she laid the arrow down and then laid herself down alongside the arrow. When her son emerged from the hole, he took hold of the arrow and again became a boy. Speaking to his mother, the boy agreed to go home but he could not leave behind his wife for he loved her, and she was pregnant with his child. Calling to his wife, the pregnant female prairie dog followed as they journeyed back to the boy’s village. When finally, they arrived, the female prairie dog rolled in the dust and, touching the hand of her husband, transformed into a woman.
In Christianity it is this spiritual Oneness, this material Sameness, articulated in the words opening the door to this Lenten Season. Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return. Words spoken from human lips to human ears with a meaning that spans beyond the experience of one species.
For the sake of all creation, we must anchor our story in the stories written and rewritten in the ashes from which we came and in the dust to which we will return. For the sake of creation, we must embody the act of repentance in the grand and overarching narrative of a God who in death promises new life.
Imagine a story retold in defense of the divine which rests in the prairie dog in amounts as it does in you and me. A story founded on the prairie dog as a keystone species with far-reaching ecological effects within the landscape, providing food, shelter, and unique habitat for over 200 vertebrate species who use prairie dog colonies as habitat during some time in their life cycle.
Imagine a story that circles so wide that it wraps the prairie dog into our story not only as a species scientifically proven to be critical to the health of the short-grass prairie ecosystem but as siblings, as fellow creatures. Creatures bound to us as we are bound to them through the breath of the Creator that animates our lives just as it animates theirs.
Imagine a story that is rooted so deep in creation and stretched so far beyond the cosmos that the prairie dog is the friend who takes us in when our hearts are broken from the groans of creation begging to become free again.
Imagine a story that is not told by us but to us. A story that shelters us. That feeds us. That teaches us what it means to truly belong.
Like the prairie dog mythology of the Pawnee people, our religious tradition returns us to the land with a broken heart that we might be transformed into Oneness with all of Creation. That in finding the sacred purpose of all living beings, we might finally more fully understand a purpose of our own.