Trees, Justice, and Faithful Learning

Bill Hemmerling, Friendship Trees

Our traditions refer to trees as rooted-and-reaching symbols, as wise teachers, or as important and respected resources. We have so much to learn from them.  In this post you will find several tree resources.  We’d like to do an additional post around our secular arbor day, so please share your favorite tree poems or stories (even if you’re sure we must have them!)

We begin with a poem we shared as the meditation at the end or our Sustained Advocacy call near Tu B’Shvat 2019, and continue with hands-on work PA IPL groups are leading, and two learning and worship resources.

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.
Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.
Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.
After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.
                                —Wendell Berry

In several collections including This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems

Tu B’Shvat is a minor Jewish holy day that, in Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s words, “celebrates the bare beginnings pf the reawakening  of trees in mid-winter, and was seen by the 16th-century Kabbalists as the rebirth of that Tree of Life that has its roots in Heaven and its fruit in the existence and creativity of us — the whole of life.”

The festival itself and its amazing Seder come at the full moon on the 15th day of the Jewish lunar “moonth” of Shvat, this year from Sunday evening January 20 through sundown Monday January 21. That means it falls this year on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday.

Consider registering for the Shalom Center’s Tu B’Shvat webinar (webinar on January 9, 2019; Tu B’Shvat begins the evening of January 20, and is January 21this year — there are also webinars preparing for earth-climate-justice rooted Passover celebrations as part of their Sacred Seasons for Sacred Earth series.  The webinars include tools for holding your own celebration.

image source

Martin Luther King’s birthday (and birthday-as-observed) are always close to Tu B’Shvat on the calendar, but in 2019, they fall together.  While we focus on the struggle for civil rights for people of all races in our celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King and his work, in fact, the larger trajectory of his work was justice.  In 2014, Rabbi Daniel Swartz, then a board member of PA IPL, wrote this piece about the connections between the two holidays.

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade left Pennsylvania when she took a job teaching at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, but we remember her well, and are pleased to share this 8-week devotional connecting trees and faith “Healthy Trees, Healthy People, Healthy Faith”

intro   week 1   week 2   week 3   week 4
week 5  week 6  week 7  week 8

Each spring and fall, the Germantown Tree Tenders plant and tend urban trees in publicly-available space from sidewalks to houses of worship.  They do so in community, and often include opportunities to offer blessings and dedications (and sometimes chances for shared food together)

In Central Pennsylvania, under the energetic leadership of Greg Williams, groups of community members, the 3rd Way Collective from Penn State, congregants, and Central PA IPL regulars have been joining for work parties  to clear space for native trees and tender plants to thrive, adding diversity and resilience to our forest systems.  Much of this work has been removing invasive plants and staking out the beginnings of the native seedlings, but the have also done successful bareroot tree plantings, live staking (along the Juniata River), (over 600 trees in 2018!), as well as native wildflower meadow plantings.  Over time, inspired by a Joanna Macy practice called Honoring our Adversaries, they have challenged themselves to recognize and honor the tenacious and exuberant qualities of the very invasives they are working so hard to hold back so the diverse native plants can thrive.

We’ll close with this browsing link on tree writings over at Baha’i Teachings. 

profile and sermon: Chelsea Jackson — Climate Change, Faith, Challenge, and Transformation

Chelsea Jacksonphoto credit- Nori TadanoWith this post we are pleased to introduce you to Chelsea Jackson, who has begun working with PA IPL as a short-term Project Coordinator, supporting constituents who are raising hopes and concerns about  clean energy, climate change and the health of our Common Home with their legislators at Town Halls during the August Congressional Recess.

Chelsea writes “For the past four years I have served as an assistant pastor at a United Methodist Church in New Jersey, where I worked diligently to center faith-rooted conversation about climate change, and encourage the congregation I was serving to help protect the environment.  Earth care inspired many of the sermons I wrote, trips I planned and the two community Eco-Art Shows I created and curated.  As a person of faith I believe there to be a direct connection to how people view God and how they treat all of Creation, and I continuously tried to help my congregation see and make those connections for themselves.  Therefore, to understand me as a person of faith who clings tightly to Earth care, it may be easiest for you to dive into one of my sermons.  Below are excerpts of a sermon I wrote for the 2015 Interfaith Power & Light Preach-In.  The sermon was met with both thankfulness and angry outbursts.  Still: the most important thing was that it felt like a spirit-gifted message that needed to be said.  Please enjoy:

It’s no secret the Christian and Jewish Scriptures begin with the creation of the world, this ordering of Chaos into water and earth, light and dark, human and non-human creatures, and it is this Creation as a collective whole, that God deems ‘very good.’

The early Genesis story, along with countless other Bible passages, reveals that God is in relationship with the Earth itself, and often cloaks God’s-self with the Earth when interacting with humans.  For example, we see God emerge in fire, in a windstorm, a burning bush, as light or at the top of a mountain.  In these instances, as in so many others, it’s as if the Earth is a form of God’s expression; like a piece of art, and we often look at art as a part of the artist who made it.  We understand a painting isn’t the actual artist, but is rather an extension of who they are.  An imprint of the artist is in the art s/he creates, that is part of what makes it so beautiful and powerful.

What if it was the same with God?  What if we looked at not only humans, but also the Earth, as made in the image of God, as an extension of God’s-self?  How would we treat the Earth differently?

Would it change how often I drive my car?  How I use energy in my house?  Would it change how I interact with politics or how I raise my children?

Would it change how I act as a consumer?  Where I buy from?  How much I buy?  I mean everything we buy was at one time part of the natural Earth in some way; part of the original artwork of God.  And though using the Earth for provision is indeed necessary for our survival, when does production or consumption become empty of purpose, empty of thoughtfulness or meaning?

Eco-Art show installed at (1)If we dig deeper, recognizing God’s imprint on Creation would influence how we eat.  The most intimate way we interact with the Earth is how we use it to nourish ourselves; how we partake in, and literally internalize its provision.  That’s why it is so important to learn where our food comes from, and how both our plant and animal based food is raised.  Is it done in a humane, safe way that recognizes God’s artistry, or is it disrespectful and even damaging to the original work of art?

One of my professors really brought this point home when she talked about Communion and asked what it meant to partake in the body and blood of Christ when the grain was grown with pesticides or the grapes were farmed by someone who did not receive a fair wage?  How does it change the meaning of this sacrament meant to be loving and liberating?

These are all important and very difficult questions.  And when faced with them we can respond in a variety of ways.

1. We can become defensive:
When faced with the reality of climate change and all the ways poor environmental practices permeate our lives, we can automatically list off reasons why we can’t change our interaction with the Earth, including: “changing the way we do things is too hard,” “it would mess up the economy,” “climate change isn’t that serious and won’t affect us much in the U.S.”

All of these claims are not only false, they also ignore the larger issues at hand.  The fact is that real change is not a luxury at this point, we must change if we want to ensure survival for even generations 100 years down the road.

But even if we don’t want to focus on the impact of climate change on the future, another problem remains; treating climate change as a non-pressing issue means denying the reality, humanity, dignity and worth of the individuals and communities being affected right now.   Continue reading profile and sermon: Chelsea Jackson — Climate Change, Faith, Challenge, and Transformation

Rev. Alison Cornish Sermon on “The Rich Man and Lazarus”

On September 25, 2016, Rev. Alison Cornish, Executive Director of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, delivered the following sermon to University Baptist and Brethren Church in State College, PA.Alison Cornish

Luke 16.19-31
Today’s scripture reading, the parable often called ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus,’ gifts us with a perfect, albeit miniature, 3-act drama, so beautifully wrought that it’s not difficult to picture it in our minds in full and resplendent color – and, to translate it to our own times.

Act I: Our narrator describes the nameless Rich Man, living luxuriously essentially in a gated community, surely surrounded by others like him, and securely protected from others that are not. His very costume exudes wealth – purple and fine linen – and we can picture him sweeping by Lazarus, lying right at the foot of the gate. Lazarus is poor – he has no food – and unwell – he is covered with sores. He must have been a sight to behold – except, as far as we can tell, the Rich Man simply didn’t see him. It’s the narrator here that’s telling us the story, and as far as we know, there was never any interaction between the two men. A gulf, a chasm, between two people, living literally side-by-side, but in completely separate worlds. Lazarus was clearly aware of the Rich Man’s existence, as he ‘longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table,’ but, then – as now – it is a privilege of the rich to look past the existence of the poor. Different lives, nothing to do with one another.

Now we move to Act II – and the narrator informs us that both the Rich Man and Lazarus have died, but here is a bit of a twist. When Lazarus died, he was carried away by angels ‘to be with Abraham,’ which we know is the sign of the highest bliss, the greatest honor. The Rich Man was buried. Period. No angels. No Abraham.

On to Act III – a shift of scene, to Hades and Paradise, and now not just a narrator speaking, but dialogue, a conversation. Now we can actually imagine not just what these men looked like, but what they sounded like, too. We learn that the Rich Man, tormented by the heat of Hades, actually knows Lazarus’ name, and though he doesn’t address him directly, calls to Abraham to have Lazarus quench his thirst – as an act of servitude? Compassion? Could be either … And to Abraham falls the task to gently point back into the past – when the Rich Man had good fortune, and Lazarus suffered, and announce the ‘reversal:’ it’s now the Rich Man’s turn to experience something of the agony Lazarus once lived. The Rich Man seems to quickly accept his fate … but then appeals to Abraham again, this time imploring Lazarus to travel from the world of the dead to the world of the living, bringing to his brothers a message of warning, giving them an opportunity to repent and change their ways, so as to save them from the fate that has befallen him. Abraham again (patiently? Pointedly?) says all the information for his brothers to live faithfully is available to them – always, has been, always will be – but the Rich Man seems to know his brothers well, and nothing short of someone returning from the dead will get their attention. Abraham is unconvinced, and the curtain falls on what must now be a devastated Rich Man, consumed not only by his own agony, but with the specter of his brothers eventually joining him in the same fate.

A beautiful, elegant illustration of God’s favor not for those who expect it – the rich and successful – but the poor and sick. But also a provocative story for our times, in at least a couple of ways.

I see first the economic chasm that separated the Rich Man and Lazarus in life, of which Lazarus was so clearly aware, and the Rich Man had the privilege to ignore – and how, in the Rich Man’s mind, they could be so completely disconnected – so disconnected that the Rich Man may never need contemplate how the wealth he so enjoyed was in any way related to the poverty Lazarus experienced.   For though we don’t how the Rich Man’s wealth was connected to Lazarus’ poverty, we can surely conclude that it was, because it doesn’t matter whether we are all living equitably or with vast differences in wealth and poverty, we are all interconnected. Was the Rich Man one of the .1% controlling the same amount of resources that 50% of the poorest in his city had access to? Did he see any connection between their stories? Was there anyone ‘connecting the dots’ that extreme wealth is accumulated from somewhere: by not paying a living wage, by not investing in a public infrastructure to care for the poor and incapacitated, by systems of oppression and power that keep whole populations ‘in their place,’ dependent on scraps from the table?

And I see, too, in the drama – in the separation between the Rich Man and Lazarus – the gulf, the nonexistence, really, of compassion – the result of hardened hearts, of not seeing – of being insulated from – another’s pain, which is far too much with us still today.

But, given the work that I do today with communities of faith and climate change, I see another, perhaps less literal, way of looking at this story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Looking through this lens, when the curtain rises on Act I, the personification of a certain (over) developed country – let’s just say the U.S. – is at the center of the scene. Its wealth is conspicuous, particularly in the powering of our economic engines with fossil fuels. Blithely we consume, combust, and spew forth more ‘absolute emissions’ in tons of CO2 than any other country on the planet, save China.

artist: John Reilly b.1921
artist: John Reilly b.1921

And who is it that sits at our gates, our ‘borders?’ Those countries who are far less developed, consuming, per capita, far less of the total ‘carbon budget’ – the oil, coal and gas that spew GHG into the atmosphere we all share. And, not inconsequentially, who are also the first to experience the effects of rising temperatures and sea levels, warmer oceans, changing weather patterns, intensified storms, and altered migration routes. Those at the gates are indeed suffering.

Like the Rich Man, the U.S. and other heavy fossil fuel users are going about business as usual, just living out their lives. Quips, like ‘we earned our prosperity’ and ‘we’re not hurting anyone, just doing what we do,’ and ‘no one is going to take away our way of life’ are heard coming out of that gated community. And we burn fossil fuels with abandon, as if there are no consequences, because we’re not connecting our way of life with those who are suffering. It takes connecting the dots to realize that our voracious appetite for our carbon-fuel-based economy is pouring CO2 into the atmosphere, allowing the planet to warm, and putting life for everyone in peril. It takes recognizing that those at our gates are real.

Just as in our parable/play, all the information is there. It’s been here all along. The scriptures that that tell us that Creation is a gift to be treasured and cherished and treated with care. The still small voice within, our conscience, that knows when we are in right relationship, caring for life, and when we have fallen short of the mark, sinned against God and fellow earthly travelers, including the flora and fauna. The science that documents the massive changes to our air, water and soil, directly connected with soaring GHG emissions from the age of industrialization. Just as in the parable, no presence returning from the dead is going to give us a stronger message than what is right in front of us, accessible each and every day.

But, somehow, we refuse to listen. Our ears are stopped up, our eyes closed. And our hearts are hardened. We are not getting the message.

Which makes me wonder if the parable-as-play needs a fourth act – always needed one, really, but today, truly needs another piece, another chapter. Because to leave us at the end of the story as it is, with the Rich Man bereft, and Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham, with the wide, uncrossable chasm between them, leaves us, where? What will change? What can change?

If I were to write another few verses, if the curtain were to rise again, I would give the next lines to the voices of the not-yet born, the future generations, the great great grandchildren of Drew Dellinger’s poem. They would perhaps appear and speak to the characters in their dreams – that’s a good biblical literary device – and speak to those both behind the gates and at the gates and perhaps even to the Rich Man’s brothers. And their voices in the dreams would be so compelling, so moving, that the separation of the gate would fall away as people recounted to one another the remarkable dreams they had – and wanted to share with everyone they encountered.

These dreams would carry the voices of future generations because I don’t know who else has the capacity to stir us to action. It would be in their voices because keeping their interests, their questions for us, before us, might help us keep perspective as we try to figure out, day-by-day, what it is we’re here for. For them, for their well-being, we might be willing to make the sacrifices we must make. If we remember that they are coming, we might find within us untold reserves of creativity and perseverance and stamina. Just thinking about them, hearts might be made less hard. Perhaps their voices would be strong enough for us to say, without equivocating, that what we face isn’t a matter of left or right or progressive or conservative or rich or poor or black or white but a matter of life and death like no other our species has ever faced. The dreams would be in their voices, because nothing else seems to be working. And the dreams would carry the words of future generations not because they will actually be alive on the planet – that’s something we can’t actually know but … because of how they might shift our own awareness.[1] In other words, we might, finally, get the message.

And, what would the message be? What could they whisper into our sleepiness to awaken us in all the ways we must be stirred?

They would remind us that we are God’s treasured and beloved people, gifted with such extraordinary powers – foremost amongst them, to be fully aware of the preciousness of life, to love living beings, and feel the call to protect and preserve them.

Those voices would recognized the times we are living in are so difficult – to live, every day, with the knowledge of the damage the planet is experiencing – the loss of species – the poisoning of air, water and soil. And their voices would offer compassion across the gulf of time.

Those voices would remind us of the strength, courage and perseverance that are a part of who we are – that we have brought to bear in other crises – that moved us past obstacles and discouragements – and are always available to us.

And, they would remind us that we are all interconnected, with one another, even with them – the not-yet-born.

And, before the curtain falls on this ‘new’ last act, I can imagine the newly awakened – those from behind-and-at-the-gate – the Rich Man’s brothers – all together speaking this prayer, from Joanna Macy, as a chorus, as one –

O you who will walk this earth when we are gone, stir us awake. Behold through our eyes the beauty of this world. Let us feel your breath in our lungs, your cry in our throat. Let us see you in the poor, the homeless, the sick. Haunt us with your hunger, hound us with your claims, that we may honor the life that links us.[2]


[1] Carolyn Baker, Love in the Age of Ecological Apocalypse: Cultivating the Relationships We Need to Thrive (Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2015) p.186.

[2] Joanna Macy and Molly Brown, Coming Back to Life (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2014), p. 183.

“I Don’t Want to Go to Hell—Do You?” – Dr. Neill Johnson Sermon on Climate Change

On August 16, 2015, Dr. Neill Johnson delivered the following sermon to University Baptist and Brethren Church of State College, Pennsylvania.

neill1I Don’t Want to Go to Hell—Do You?

“Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. . . . This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”[1]

I’m going to address four related themes today: 1) reading Matthew 25: 31-46 and similar scenes in Revelation as judgments of nations, rather than individuals; 2) examining how people in Biblical times thought about concepts related to what we call “heaven” and “hell”; 3) exposing popular Rapture/Apocalypse narratives as non-Biblical and countering the damage done by Christians who see no point in saving an earth that will disappear soon anyway; and 4) finding theological grounding and inspiration in Pope Francis’s encyclical for taking on the work of “ecological conversion” as Gospel work.

Jesus’s parable or prophetic story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 is consistent with the last judgment in St. John the Divine’s Revelation. The two texts were probably written about the same time, 20-25 years after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans in A.D. 70.[2] However, I will argue that both this parable and the book of Revelation describe not only a last judgment of individuals, but also and more significantly a judgment of nations—primarily Israel, but, by extension, all nations and civilizations. This is consistent with Jesus’s other teachings in the Gospels and his role as a prophet, the man described by John the Baptist as coming to baptize the people by fire.

Our text begins with a reference to the return of the heavenly king with his angels and with justice: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne of heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him.” Even though it is very clear that this king will address the two groups (sheep and goats) as collectives, “Come, you who are blessed/cursed, take your inheritance/depart from me,” the church has taught and we usually hear this as an individual judgment: Which side am I on, and how can I avoid being sent into the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”? It’s good that we are called to self-examination by this passage, but if we ignore the call to our own nation for widespread repentance, we stand in grave danger of missing the gist of Jesus’s warning. In short, I hold that what Jesus is saying here is this: “Those nations who are not in the habit of caring for the least of these in my family will become accursed and separated from God, but those nations who are in the habit of caring for these least ones will inherit what was always theirs—perfect communion with God.”

When I first read Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, the core precept of which is quoted in our Meditation, I cried tears of joy. Finally, the institutional church is starting to build a theology which demands that we take care of the planet, our sister, our common home, with the same uncompromising habituation we apply in caring for “the least”—those who hunger and thirst, the stranger, the unclothed, the sick, and those in prison. Only by doing this will we gain our inheritance. And what do we inherit if not the earth, the earth as created from the beginning for us and for all creatures, the earth which we have been rejecting since our first sin in the Garden of Eden, the land, the air, the waters, the minerals, the flora, the fauna, this inhabitable realm, this shining and blessed planet, this inseparable-from-us thing we call “the environment”? Shouldn’t it be obvious to us and to our leaders that taking care of our common home equates to providing affordable, sustainable agricultural resources and potable water to those of all nations, giving shelter to refugees, clothing the naked, nursing the sick and injured, and visiting, defending, and attempting to free those in prison? Does this not describe the main problems we face now, now!—not in some future Armageddon or WWIII that we imagine will usher in the second coming of Christ? What makes us think Christ wants to wait for things to get worse? How much worse are we willing to let things get?

In The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, two contemporary historians of science, a fictional science historian from the Second Peoples Republic of China looks back from the year 2300 to examine why people of the 20th and 21st centuries failed to stop global warming, even though they had full knowledge of its causes and effects. Instead, they let global warming reach a tipping point that melted Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, inundating whole countries such as the Netherlands and Bangladesh, not to mention over half of Florida and most US cities on the East coast. This tipping point was breached when the rise in average annual global temperature exceeded six degrees C and was not abated until after the rise peaked at 10 degrees C in the year 2093. By the start of the 22nd century, the nations had relocated 1.5 billion environmental refugees from flooded coastal plains and islands as well as from the desertification of continental interiors and two whole continents—Africa and Australian.[3] Why, this historian of science asks, weren’t ameliorating policies put in place soon after scientists developed computer models in the 1970s showing that greenhouse gases would cause global warming? By 2012 when temperatures had risen 1 degree C and sea levels not quite one third of a meter, why then with a bounty of plain evidence at hand provided by the International Panel on Climate Change and national environmental agencies across the globe, was the combustion of carbon-based fuels still increasing exponentially instead of being stepped down as rapidly as possible? Why did public policies favor global shale gas development and oil exploration in places like the Arctic keeping fossil fuels cheap and delaying for half a century the widespread adoption of zero-net-carbon sources of electricity such as solar and wind to power factories, businesses, homes and most means of transportation?[4]

I don’t know about you, but Oreskes’ and Conway’s science-based look-back from the future sounds like Hell to me, and I don’t want to go there. Earlier this summer in the middle of June, Columbia, South Carolina experienced 13 consecutive days when the high temperature was between 97 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit. In the summer, I check Columbia weather almost daily because my brother lives there and because I want to remind myself why I don’t. During that June hot spell, one Youtube video that went viral featured a middle-aged African-American business man sitting in his air-conditioned car in his dress suit looking out at the waves of heat rising from the Columbia pavements, shaking his head slowly, and singing softly to himself, “Hell is a hot place, I don’t want to go [repeated twice more]. Hell no, hell no, hell no!” Columbia is profoundly hot from May through September, and it gets hotter every decade. Even in the 1980s when I lived there, the heat was punishing. My anthropology professor at USC did his research on natives of the Amazon rainforest. When one of my classmates asked him how he prepared his research team for the Brazilian heat and humidity, he said, “Oh, you must not be from here! We just pitch our tents in my back yard for a week or two in the summer.”

Common Christian images of Hell as a place of eternal torture have been used by the church (and by pagan religions and states, as well) to intimidate an unruly populace into behaving less badly.[5] So it’s not surprising that the Church jumped on that bandwagon. Much of the difficulty of tracing the meaning of “hell” in the Bible is that our early English translators forced four different words (one Hebrew and three Greek) into those four little letters. The word most relevant to a fiery torture furnace is “Gehenna,” a valley outside Jerusalem that Jesus references quite often in the gospels. Gehenna was a place of ignominious sacrifice to pagan idols and, later, Jerusalem’s stinking city dump where waste was burned continuously. It’s ironic that we are turning our planet into a vast dump that resembles Jesus’s Gehenna.

Jesus and other prophets before him warned an unrepentant Israel that as a nation, it was going to Hades—the land of the dead, the unseen, the place of shadows, and the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “sheol” in the Old testament. Both words were translated as “hell” in many early Bibles; however, there is one major difference: the Greek underworld was divided into two districts, one for the righteous and one for the wicked. Hades is the place where Lazarus goes before Jesus brings him back and where Jesus himself goes between his death and his resurrection. Hades is inhabited by vanquished peoples, nations, and city-states. In Revelation, Jesus holds the keys to death and hades and at the last judgment, he casts death and hades into the lake of fire after they have given up their dead. Jesus warned his people that without repentance, Israel would disappear from the earth. And it nearly did.

Like Israel 2000 years ago, our nation is in danger of going to Hades—this I firmly believe. How long can we endure when our leaders appease the powerful energy companies who are obstructing all efforts to mitigate climate change? How long can we remain the most influential nation in the world when our interests are controlled by companies whose annual income is greater than the gross domestic product of most countries and who are intent on burning as much fossil fuel as possible before finally exhausting all available reserves? How long can such a nation’s leaders dare to claim to be following the teachings of Jesus?

As Christians, I think it’s important for us to understand and counteract the damage that has been done to our common home by many of these so-called Christian leaders in the name of fulfilling Biblical prophecy. In The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, Barbara Rossing traces the origins of the Rapture to a 19th-century British evangelist named John Nelson Darby, the founder of the Plymouth Brethren. Based on a young girl’s vision of a two-stage return of Jesus, Darby developed an elaborate and strained interpretation of scriptures claiming that Jesus would return a first time in secret to remove his church to heaven so that believers would escape a seven-year period of global tribulation at the end of which Jesus would return a second time to establish his Jerusalem-based kingdom on earth.[6] Rossing says Darby developed “a grand timetable for world events” based on “seven distinct dispensations, or ages” claiming that “during each time God has dealt with people according to a different set of rules. Dispensationalism thus lays out a rigid master plan for all of history.”[7] Darby won many converts on his mission trips to the US, and his ideas were popularized in the Schofield Reference Bible published in 1909, a book that had a huge influence on US Protestantism. I know from growing up Southern Baptist that our teachers and preachers made regular use of that Bible.

Rossing argues convincingly that the Rapture is a persistent and widely-believed, but largely escapist fantasy popularized most recently by the left-behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins published in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These novels portray an increasingly polluted and violent world as a necessary evil so that Antichrist can take over, Jews can convert and fight back, and Jesus can return to slaughter his enemies and to establish a new Heaven and Earth. Rossi argues that Revelation’s return of Jesus as a king with a sword coming out of his mouth and as a scarred and blood-stained lamb (both incongruous images for a warrior) debunks the left-behind novels’ portrayal of a violent and epic routing of the enemy. In Revelation, Jesus and his followers do “conquer” the forces of an evil empire (think Rome, think American carbon-combustion complex), but they do so with their words and with their faithfulness.[8]

Revelation is ultimately more about the healing of nations and the establishment of a city of God on a planet restored to an Eden-like state than it is about the battle of Armageddon. In 22:1-2 that I read earlier, the headwaters of the river of the water of life flow from the throne of God and the Lamb, then down the middle of the great street of the city. The fruits of the tree of life are edible and its leaves have the power to heal and bring peace to a war-torn world. Revelation’s infamous whore of Babylon is as apt an image for a self-serving, unregulated, consumerist America run amok as it was for the glutted superpower that was Rome. Pope Francis’s encyclical says that our ecological crisis calls both active and passive resisters to “ecological conversion, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”[9] Protestants as well as Catholics must take seriously this call for an ecological conversion of the faithful as a means of reversing the harm done by the self-serving doomsayers, those who want the world to come quickly to an end, as well as the deniers of responsibility for climate change and its consequences.

If we continue to reject Jesus by ignoring the plight of the planet and its poorest and most helpless inhabitants—human and other species, we will surely be cast into Hades and oblivion. But the Bible is a book of hope, not despair. The word “heaven” appears at least ten times more than “hell” even in the least accurate translations. The Gospel does point the way forward in the current crisis. It’s crucial not only that we personally attend to “the least of these,” but also that we demand this of our leaders. Impassioned appeals to members of Congress, the application of steady pressure over time, the promotion of policies that will reverse our reliance on carbon-based fuels, the generous funding of scientific research, the immediate implementation of practical stop-gaps, and our speaking out boldly as people of faith—these collective efforts will enable us as a congregation, a nation, a civilization to authentically and habitually address the urgent needs of “the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.” We have accomplished seemingly impossible tasks in record time before—think of government-sponsored programs such as NASA putting a man on the moon within nine years of President Kennedy’s vow to do so. Until the will of the executive and legislative branches of our government is committed to a man-on-the-moon-before-the-end-of-the-decade approach to stopping global warming, it is up to us to take civil action and generate that national will, starting right here in our local community. This work is worth doing, and it is Gospel work!

Now, to close: don’t ever let anyone persuade you that it’s too late. One degree Centigrade and one foot of ocean rise into the global warming future is not far, and we can turn this around. Scientists may eventually find a miracle breakthrough. In Oreskes’ and Conway’s View from the Future, that breakthrough is a tiny, genetically-engineered black lichen that thrives in almost any environment and that is enormously efficient at capturing carbon-dioxide. But we don’t know the hour of that breakthrough, so we must be vigilant in taking action now. Our reward will be far more than survival; it will be the promised kingdom of heaven, the New Jerusalem right here on Earth. Do not despair. Let the closing words of Revelation live in your thoughts, your prayers, and your actions as you make your way forward in this exciting time of ecological conversion: “Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” We’re ready, and we’re not going to hell!


Repent and rejoice. Convert your families, friends, and neighbors by your words and deeds. By the witness of your faith-activism, hold the rich and powerful to account. Attend to the least of your fellow creatures—including your sister, the earth. Save our nation from Gehenna. Work and pray for the healing of the nations and for the preservation of our common home. Behold, the kingdom of heaven is at hand! The time is now, the work has begun. Amen.

[1] Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis, On Care for our Common Home. (2015, May 24). Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1-2.

[2] Wayne Jackson. (2015). When was the Book of Revelation written? Christian Courier. Retrieved from Jackson makes a strong case for the latter date based on historical evidence. The alternate date is just before the destruction of Jerusalem. Barbara Rossing in The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation dates the writing of Matthew as around 90 A.D., making it more or less contemporaneous with John the Divine’s Revelation. A date for Matthew after the temple destruction is increasingly favored by today’s Biblical scholars.

[3] Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. (2014). The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 33.

[4]Oreskes and Conway, p. 19.

[5] Samuel G. Dawson. “Jesus’ Teaching on Hell.” Retrieved from The online materials are based on ch. 11 of Dawson and Dawson’s The Teaching of Jesus: From Mount Sinai to Gehenna: A Faithful Rabbi Urgently Warns Rebellious Israel. Amarillo, TX: Gospel Times Press, 2007.

[6] Barbara R. Rossing. (2004). The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, p. 22.

[7] Rossing, p. 23.

[8] Rossing, p. 111.

[9] Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis, On Care for our Common Home. (2015, May 24). Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 217.

We must stop shouting and listen in love

The following piece by the Rev. Mitch Hescox, President and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network appeared in the print edition of his home paper, the York Daily Record on Sunday, December 25, 2016, as well as the Centre Daily Times, and is republished here with permission.  Rev. Hescox works tirelessly for a fast and fair transition to a clean energy economy; he grew up in a coal family in a coal town, and worked for a coal company, so he’s a particularly interesting and important voice for Pennsylvania.

Rev. Mitch Hescox“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all.” The famous Christian proclamation in Luke’s gospel doesn’t seem as realistic this holiday season, but we need to make it so.

Donald Trump is president-elect of the United States.  That’s not going to change for at least four years.  It’s time for our country to put aside partisanship and work together as a nation.  That doesn’t mean we must agree with everything President Trump’s administration will attempt, any more than we have to agree with the Republican-led Congress or for that matter proposals from the Democrats in Congress.  However, it’s time to find common ground where we can; disagree appropriately, and live in light of the vision that the prophet Micah has, “And what does Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

There’s no doubt that America is more divided than at any time since the election of Abraham Lincoln.  The rhetoric, vile comments and outright hate seem to spew continually from ideological bastions from both the right and the left, even in the Christian community.  As an evangelical leader who has been “condemned to Hell” (and received more than a few death threats) for understanding the scientific measurements and rapid rise in temperature as climate change from the right, and dismissed as an uneducated religious zealot for believing that life begins at conception by the left.

It is so easy to assign labels and disparage another human being by –>Continue reading at the Centre Daily Times —>         —>Continue reading at the York Daily Record—>

Read a review and synopsis of Rev. Hescox’ new book, Caring for Creation, co-written with Paul Douglas, meteorologist.

8 Days of Hanukkah, my True Love said to me:

“Please Heal My Earth”

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This year, Christmas and Hanukkah converge for the first time in nearly four decades.  Both Christians and Jews will light lights in the darkness tonight, on December 24.  Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center suggests a re-visioning of the menorah as a symbol of our ability to do all of what we need with only 1/8th of what we thought we needed, and suggests eight days of actions which we all can embrace.  Let them inspire you to action, whether these very actions, or some others, rooted in your own faith, wisdom, and traditions.  Reb Arthur: 

Hanukkah brings with it again this year three crucial teachings about healing our Mother Earth from the ravages of global scorching.

The Green Menorah, a Tree of Light that is a fusion of human craft and Earth’s growth. On this Shabbat we read the Prophetic passage from Zechariah (2:14 to 4: 12) that emplaces the Temple Menorah as part of a tiny forest of olive trees that give forth their oil straight into the Menorah.

We breathe in what these Trees of Light breathe out; they breathe in what we breathe out. We Continue reading 8 Days of Hanukkah, my True Love said to me: