So, here’s a thing I saw this week. Monday night, just as it started snowing, my neighbor started mowing. Mowing while it’s snowing? Toto, we’re not in Georgia anymore!
In Georgia, if it starts snowing, you rush to Lowe’s and buy salt, a snow shovel, and a generator, swing by the gas station for some fuel, then make one last stop at the grocery store for milk and bread. (I always have this vision of families ensconced in their snowbound homes dining on French toast by candlelight.) In Georgia, when snow is rumored, you begin preparing for the apocalypse. In Georgia, when it starts snowing, you don’t start mowing! In North Carolina, apparently, that’s just a thing you do.
I was born in east central Alabama and grew up in north Florida. Then I moved to Oklahoma to attend college. “Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain!” And does it! Every moment of the day and night. Constant wind. For the five years I lived in Oklahoma, I didn’t brush my hair. What was the point?
And the trees. There aren’t any. Maybe the wind blew them all away, I don’t know. Once, when our glee club toured southeast Texas, I heard someone on the bus—an Oklahoma native—say, “All these trees make me nervous!” Those trees didn’t make me nervous; they brought me comfort. They reminded me of home.
For those of us who grew up in a single region, the environment of that region shapes us. Poet Kathleen Norris’ return home to North Dakota inspired her to write a book about how the landscape of the northern plains shaped–and continues to shape–her spirituality. A woman in my last church talked about moving back to Wisconsin the whole time I was her pastor…from 2001 until she moved last year. I’ve been to Wisconsin. I don’t get it. For her, though, Wisconsin is home. That is the landscape that nurtures her.
What landscape nurtures you? I’m guessing we all love these mountains. What’s not to love, right? But are there other landscapes that nurture you? I invite you to take a minute to return in your mind to one of those landscapes. What is the terrain like? The weather? What plants, flowers, and trees do you see? What animals and insects inhabit the area? What makes the place beautiful? What ecological threats challenge the place?
This year’s Earth Day theme for churches is “A Sense of Place.” It reminds us that a key part of our Christian faith involves being in relationship with the place we inhabit. As theologian Munther Isaac says, “A church in a particular land exists for the sake of that land and takes [its] mission from it. The church, in other words, derives much of its purpose from its locale.”
So, Church, how is our purpose derived from our locale? If the reading of Psalm 104 seemed a little different today, that’s because it was. Psalm 104 is the quintessential “praising creation” psalm…which is great, but the composer of the psalm names creatures from their home region—the Middle East. As a way of bringing Psalm 104—literally—home for us, Alice replaced Middle Eastern flora and fauna with flora and fauna from here in Western North Carolina. It reminds us that God is in THIS place, too, in this terrain, this weather, these plants, animals, and trees…this place, with all its beauty and all its ecological challenges.
So, Church, how will we live our faith in this place?
I confess that over the years I’ve preached a lot of angry sermons about earth care. The stridency, I’m sure, came from abject terror. We consume so many of Earth’s precious resources without a thought–fossil fuels, water, trees. Trees! Our planet’s lungs. I think I always assumed that if people understood what we’re doing to Earth, they’d change their behavior immediately and begin doing things that would act Earth into wellbeing.
But it’s not that simple, is it? It’s not that simple because the steps that truly will act Earth into wellbeing must be taken by nations. Reducing our individual carbon footprints is important, but in truth, what we do individually isn’t even a drop in the bucket when it comes to mitigating the devastating effects of climate change. The actions that will have any hope of slowing climate change will be taken by national governments.
I could go off here on the giant steps backward our own government has taken in the last 18 months, but why spend time talking about what we already know needs to be done? Write your legislators. March every chance you get. And work for the election of legislators who will use their power to act Earth into wellbeing.
Sometimes I’m afraid that our collective abject terror about Earth’s health prevents us from nurturing our relationship with Earth. Sometimes, out of our fear our activism can be a bit heavy-handed. Don’t get me wrong, activism is important, vital, crucial. But so is nurturing our relationship with Earth….with our piece of Earth, or the part we’re inhabiting.
In Celtic spirituality, there’s a long tradition of pilgrimage. Pilgrims often would set out with no plan other than simply to go where they felt God leading them. St. Columba, of Iona, called these pilgrims, hospites mundi, guests of the world. Wherever their paths led them, they always were to go as guests of the world. Being a guest is a frame of mind, isn’t it? It’s taking care with every little thing. It’s asking permission for the big things. It’s enjoying the hospitality that’s extended. It’s leaving things better than they were when you arrived.
As people of faith, we, too, are guests of the world, of this particular part of the world. How will we take care with every little thing in this place? How might we ask permission of Earth before doing things that will impact her? How might we enjoy the hospitality Earth extends to us? How might we ensure that this spot on Earth is better when we leave it than it was when we arrived?
The best way to become a good and thoughtful guest is to get to know your host. As an almost 3-month resident of Asheville, I haven’t done much more than shake hands and say hello to my new region. Some of you are intimately acquainted with this place. How might all of us together become better acquainted with this bit of God’s creation we’re visiting?
After my experiences the past couple of weeks with my mom, I’ve decided that the hardest thing in the world is watching someone you love suffer. When someone you love suffers, you’ll do anything to relieve their suffering.
Do I need to say that Earth is suffering? Surely, that’s something we all understand. I’m not here to tell us what to do to relieve that suffering. What I am suggesting is that when we know our beloved intimately, we will know better how to relieve the beloved’s suffering. As we become better-acquainted with Earth, we’ll get clearer about how to act Earth into wellbeing.
I grew up in north central Florida. I hated every minute of it. It was flat. It was hot. It was humid. Ugly Spanish moss covered everything. Mosquitos, bugs. Possums. The whole time I was growing up, I dreamed of moving to live in—wait for it!—the mountains.
I first started loving my “region of origin” several years back when I read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek. Cross Creek is on the other side of Alachua County, Florida, from Newberry, where I grew up. Gainesville splits the difference between the two.
Rawlings grew up in the northeast, but fell in love with Cross Creek the first time she visited in 1928. She bought an orange grove, worked it, and wrote about her adopted home. It was in reading those clear descriptions of the area where I grew up that I began to see how those trees, that moss, those critters, that humidity had shaped me. It was the first time I connected with that part of me that is most at home in north central Florida, the part that is most comforted by the lush vegetation and trees and even the Spanish moss, heat, and humidity of that place.
Cross Creek ends with a paragraph for which Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is best known. Hear in these words her profound love for Cross Creek…and her profound respect for creation’s life apart from human beings. Marjorie seems to have understood herself to be a guest of Cross Creek. Julie’s going to read the quote, then I’ll sing it.
“Who owns Cross Creek? The red-birds, I think, more than I, for they will have their nests even in the face of delinquent mortgages. And after I am dead, who am childless, the human ownership of grove and field and hammock is hypothetical. But a long line of red-birds and whippoorwills and blue-jays and ground doves will descend from the present owners of nests in the orange trees, and their claim will be less subject to dispute that that of any human heirs. Houses are individual and can be owned, like nests, and fought for. But what of the land? It seems to me that the earth may be borrowed but not bought. It may be used, but not owned. It gives itself in response to love and tending, offers its seasonal flowering and fruiting. But we are tenants and not possessors, lovers and not masters. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seek, and beyond all, to time.” (Cross Creek, 380)
[Sing: “Who Owns the Creek?”]
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2018