How to Pray While the World Burns

by Hila Ratzabi


Go outside.
Find a patch of grass, sand, dirt.
Sit, kneel, place a hand or just
A finger to the soft earth.
Feel it pulse back.

Open your palms and divine
The words creased between.
Rub the specks of dirt
Between your fingers,
See how they cling to skin,
How they listen in their soft-rough way.

The earth will hold you better
Than God can.
God could not stop the bullets
Or the sale of weapons.
God could not block the open
Synagogue doors.

But we keep saying, Shema,
Our God is One.
Hiding in plain sight.

But listen, Israel, our God is beneath
Our feet, between
Our fingers, coursing
Through our veins.

Our God is trapped
In the poisoned grass,
Where the blood of our brothers cries out,
Where the ants heave centuries on their backs.

Pray to the God who sharpened the tiger’s teeth,
Who stored the roar in its throat.
Pray to the God who gave you lungs and tongue
To sing and groan and hum.

I swear to you
When the leaf shivers in the wind
You have given it chills
From all its listening.

The earth hears your prayer.
There is nowhere for God to hide.
Get down on your knees and let
This precious earth soften for the weight of you.

You are held.
You are heard.
The wind pulls its blanket over your back,
Smooths the hair from your face,
Touches your cheek
With its cool, trembling hands.

October 2019 Newsletter-Part 1: Embracing the Fall

Photo credit: Michael Heimlich, Flick

If you Breathe in my quiet, 
Interbreathe with all Life
Still small Voice of us all —
You will feel the Connections;
You will make the connections
And the rain will fall rightly
The grains will grow rightly
And the rivers will run
So you and all creatures
Will eat well in harmony,
Earthlings / good Earth.
— Rabbi Arthur Waskow;
Excerpt from v’haya im shemo’ad: a Prayer in a Time of Planetary Danger.

See prayer in full, and in Hebrew

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Fall is finally upon us!  Leaves crunch underfoot. Mornings are crisp.  Apples and pumpkins abound.  At many of the Global Climate Strikes in Pennsylvania on those last Fridays of September, it didn’t yet feel like fall. But that visible and hopeful upwelling heard around the world was beautiful, new, and challenging—as it was meant to be.  We’ve gathered photos, videos and words you have shared with us in this blog post.  We’d love to add your pieces, particularly those  rooted in faith, or connected to the youth leadership of many gatherings across Pennsylvania. Thank you for being part of the clarion call!

August 2019 Newsletter Part 1 – Inspiration

{image source:}

We survey our closed dominion until we look up in August to find comet dust flaring in the night.
This vastness, this vertiginous awareness mocking gravity on our speck of now,
wakes us with a recalibrating jolt.

Excerpt from
“Watching the Perseids”
by Isabel Rogers

The end of August is a time to move from the long days of summer to the more regular rhythms of our lives. Even when our households are not guided by the schedules of schoolchildren, communities and congregations tend to drift to the outdoors in the season of daylight, and greet each other in reunion and anticipation as September approaches.  

August 2019 Newsletter Part 2-Listen
August 2019 Newsletter Part 3-Season of Creation
August 2019 Newsletter Part 4-Youth

Love Thy Nature

This sermon given by the Rev. Alison Cornish at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lancaster on April 7, 2019. Readings precede the sermon below.

Time for All Ages: “The Agreement” by Barry Lopez

South Fork of the Salmon River ( source)

One time…before there were any people walking around this valley there were bear people. They had an agreement with the salmon people. The salmon would come upriver every fall and the bears would acknowledge this and take what they needed. This is the way it was with everything. Everyone lived by certain agreements and courtesies.

But the salmon people and the bear people had made no agreement with the river. It had been overlooked. No one thought it was even necessary. Well, it was. One fall the river pulled itself back into the shore trees and wouldn’t let the salmon enter from the ocean. Whenever they would try, the river would pull back and leave the salmon stranded on the beach.

There was a long argument, a lot of talk. Finally the river let the salmon enter. But when the salmon got up into the country where the bears lived the river began to run in two directions at once, north on one side, south on the other, roaring, heaving, white water, and rolling big boulders up on the banks.

Then the river was suddenly still. The salmon were afraid to move. The bears were standing behind the trees, looking out. The river said in the middle of all this silence that there had to be an agreement. No one could just do something, whatever they wanted. You couldn’t just take someone for granted.

So for several days they spoke about it. The salmon said who they were and where they came from, and the bears spoke about what they did, what powers they had been given, and the river spoke about its agreement with the rain and the wind and the crayfish and so on. Everybody said what they needed and what they would give away.

Then a very odd thing happened—the river said it loved the salmon. No one had ever said anything like this before. No one had taken this chance. It was an honesty that pleased everyone. It made for a very deep agreement among them. Well they were able to reach an understanding about their obligations to each other and everyone went (their) way. This remains unchanged. Time has nothing to do with this. This is not a story. When you feel the river shuddering against your legs, you are feeling the presence of all these agreements. 

— Barry Lopez “The Agreement”

Reading: “Earth Teach Me” from the Ute Indians

Earth teach me stillness
as the grasses are stilled with light.
Earth teach me suffering
as old stones suffer with memory.
Earth teach me humility
as blossoms are humble with beginning.
Earth teach me caring
as the mother who secures her young.
Earth teach me courage
as the tree which stands alone.
Earth teach me limitation
as the ant which crawls on the ground.
Earth teach me freedom
as the eagle which soars in the sky.
Earth teach me resignation
as the leaves which die in the fall.
Earth teach me regeneration
as the seed which rises in the spring.
Earth teach me to forget myself
as melted snow forgets its life.
Earth teach me to remember kindness
as dry fields weep with rain.

—from the Ute Indians

Meditation: “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver

Blackwater Pond (image source)

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars
of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,
the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.

— Mary Oliver “In Blackwater Woods”

Reading: excerpts from “A Sand County Almanac,” Aldo Leopold, 1948

Image from the Aldo Leopold Foundation

On a land ethic
Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land.  Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen and by innumerable physical gadgets.  He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow.  Turn him loose for a day on the land, and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a “scenic” area, his is bored stiff.  If crops could be raised by hydroponics instead of farming, it would suit him very well.  Synthetic substitutes for wood, leather, wool, and other natural land products suit him better than the originals.  In short, land is something he has “outgrown.”

The case for a land ethic would appear hopeless but for the minority which is in obvious revolt against these “modern” trends.   The ‘key-log’ which must be moved to release the evolutionary process for an ethic is simply this: Quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem.  Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient.  A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

The evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as emotional process.  Conservation is paved with good intentions which prove to be futile, or even dangerous, because they are devoid of critical understanding either of the land or of economic land-use.  I think it is a truism that as the ethical frontier advances from the individual to the community, its intellectual content increases.

The mechanism of operation is the same for any ethic:  social approbation for right actions; social disapproval for wrong actions.  By and large, our present problem is one of attitudes and implements.”

— Aldo Leopold, excerpted from “A Sand County Almanac,” 1948

Sermon: Love Thy Nature

The Rev. Alison M. Cornish
As I was meditating on the theme of today’s service, and the musical offerings and readings selected by the Green Sanctuary Committee, a vivid childhood experience came rushing back to me. 

I was perhaps 9 years old, visiting a zoo with my mother and some friends, and watching a dolphin cavorting in a deep pool; sleek and lithe, moving through the water the way I dreamed I, too, would love to – arcing up and slicing through the clear waves it was making for itself. 

Nearby, a zoo worker talked about the animals.  Looking down into the water, I noticed some pennies at the bottom of the pool – as is so common in fountains and ‘wishing pools.’ 

I dug a penny out of my pocket, and tossed it into the pool, watching it flutter down through the water.  Suddenly the zoo worker was yelling –at me – scolding me in front of everyone.

What a stupid, dangerous thing to do he shouted.  That dolphin thinks you just threw some food, and is likely to choke on what you just thoughtlessly threw in the water.  I felt myself turn red and hot. I was as embarrassed at being called out in front of others as for having done something wrong.  Others had done what I had – there were lots of pennies on the bottom of the pool, but I was the one who got caught.  I remember walking slowly away, tears brimming and cheeks burning, and – perhaps the worst feeling of all – unable to undo what I had done.

Fast forward a few years. Now I’m an adolescent, again on a family outing, this time at an aquarium.  Again, we stopped to watch the dolphins swimming about.  No zoo worker this time – instead, there was an interpretive panel mounted on the railing by the pool, showing a picture of one of the aquarium’s dolphins taken during an autopsy, its intestine filled with – pennies, made bright and shiny by the animal’s stomach acid. The grisly display was clearly intended to stop people – people like me – from throwing pennies into the dolphin’s pool.  As I looked at the picture, my heart sank, and my stomach twisted.  This wasn’t ‘my’ dolphin – I hadn’t thrown a penny into this particular pool – but … it could have been. It might have been. 

I tell you this not as a personal confession, or as a glimpse of me as a flawed human being capable of making egregious mistakes, although it is both.  This story rose into my consciousness – and my conscience – in contemplating today’s theme – Love Thy Nature, I think, for a couple of reasons.  The memory suggests to me a more apt name for today’s service is ‘Love Thy Nature’2 – that is, ‘Love Thy Nature Squared’ – because there are really two ‘natures’ we need to love – the nature seen in that glorious dolphin – as well as in the transient world Mary Oliver describes – and our own human nature – us, the often exasperatingly wrongheaded beings we are.  Love for these two ‘natures, are two different tasks; but, I believe both are necessary and critical to our survival, as well as the survival of those with whom we share this planet.  And the stakes are high – for if we fail, we stand to lose both ourselves, and this precious place we call Home.

This morning’s reading from Aldo Leopold, written in 1948, is but one plea from a long line of philosophers, conservationists, theologians, and yes, even musicians, who decry the separation between humans and the natural world – and the consequences of that separation. “Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen and by innumerable physical gadgets…

[they have] no vital relation to it …” Leopold laments.  “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot,” sings Joni Mitchell.  Barbara Kingsolver writes, “We have a habit of naming a new development for what we just cut down and bulldozed – ‘Hidden Valley Condominiums’ – Whispering Pines Resort.’”   I imagine you, like me, are sympathetic to their cries, and share their sadness of losing what we love – a hallowed place, a habitat teeming with life.  Most of us would like to see more open land preserved from development – most of us see real value in animal and plant species having unpolluted, undisturbed, land to call their own, to live unfettered and free lives.  And most of us are all too familiar with the forces set on pushing ‘nature’ further away, to the edges of our towns, and our consciousness.  And, most of us are not as connected to the world of nature as we could – or – should be.

Saltwater tidal creek, Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Gateway National Recreation Area; Gregory J. Edinger; source

Before moving to Philadelphia, my husband and I lived for 27 years on the east end of Long Island.  We were blessed to have a house fronting directly on a saltwater creek, which led out to a bay, bordered by a wildlife refuge, and a county park.  At this time of year, osprey would return from their winter homes in Florida, their distinctive chirp announcing their presence.  As the creek water warmed, so did the turtles, who floated to the surface from their winter quarters in the mud.  Geese hatched goslings in the reeds.  We were surrounded by the rhythms and cadences of nature because they were literally in our front yard.

Life in the city is an altogether different enterprise.  Nature exists in the interstices – between pavement and steel and the machinations of human invention.  Tree roots explode through concrete sidewalks. Birds nest in rowhouse gutters.  Cherry blossoms float down the river, swirling around plastic detritus. 

What I want to say is – while it was easy to be aware of the natural world when it was everywhere around us, it was also frighteningly easy to take it for granted, to become inured to its astonishing richness. Finding nature in the city is more like a scavenger hunt – there if you look for it, precious and remarkable in its tenacity.  But here’s an uncomfortable truth:  in either place – surrounded by close-by trees and water and marshland, or the carved-up gridded cityscape – to truly be in touch with nature, and to allow nature to touch us, requires acts of intentionality on our part.  Because whether we are habituated to its presence, or too busy to search out its slim existence, it has become entirely possible to live out the daily patterns of our human lives in ways that touch – us to nature, and nature to us – simply does not happen. 

image source

Think about it – reaching for the shrink-wrapped chicken or fish in the grocery store’s refrigerated case – do you remember it once breathed the same air we do? What about that carton of almond beverage squeezed from nuts fed by California’s water ‘borrowed’ from the future? 

Slipping on a pair of jeans, do we think about the fabric’s fibers spun from countless cotton bolls, grown and harvested under the relentless sun?  The metals in the battery that powers my smartphone – do I picture them mined in far-away Congo? 

from:World Wildlife Fund impact of cotton

This separation I’m describing may not look exactly like the mindlessness of my penny tossed into the dolphin’s pool all those years ago; but the consequences are similarly dire – though magnified by multitudes.  When we have eyes only for the human-made products of our world, it is so easy to simply not even see the rest of the world – the plants, animals, seeds, minerals; the rivers, salmon and bears; the insects, soil and compost for next year’s crops.  And what we don’t see, we can’t love. And what we don’t love, we can’t save.

Just as there has been a steady flow of those who call out our separation from nature, there has been another, more recent stream of thinking about the human species’ place in the world: that it’s just a matter of time before the conditions set in motion by the agricultural and industrial revolutions manifest a world that is simply impossible for us to live in – and, so goes this line of thought, the world will be better off without us.  Without human activity that pollutes and destroys, endangered species pushed to the edges of extinction will rebound, habitats will be restored, and the natural order will be returned, as enemy number one – us – fades away into history.

forest in recovery; image source

I cannot analyze how realistic this scenario is – or isn’t.  But I am sympathetic to those who are drawn to it, and hold it.  The condition of the world is grim, and the cause of that condition is us.  We drive the cars, cut down the trees, and build pipelines so oil and gas can snake across the countryside.  We destroy intentionally, and unintentionally.  We preference our own needs above the health of the air, water, and soil needed by all that lives. Even if we wish it were different, we are embedded in a system built on a foundation of ‘humans first,’ voraciously fed by resources taken for our own needs. 

I will admit, there are days when I wish, fervently, that I was other than human, just to separate myself from the species most responsible for this desecration and destruction. But we – humans, that is – are here.  And we have a purpose in being here.  To me, that purpose is not to find new and creative ways to exploit and plunder the gifts that surround us, and on which we and all life depend.  Our call now is to claim and use the unique gifts of our species – that which makes us special – to do what we can – and must – that which no other species can. 

A dear friend, John Andrews, wrote beautifully about this, ruminating on why humans are necessary:

We [humans] have subjective, conscious experience – the greenness of grass, the tinkle of bells, the smell of a rose, the pleasure of sex, the pain of torture, the joy of human bonding, the anguish of loss, the “aha” experience when we solve a difficult puzzle.  Equally special, we are able to pursue goals that go beyond mere self-preservation.
People may differ on whether there are other beings that share our gifts of consciousness and purpose.  …  Do some of our cousins among the animals qualify?  Perhaps dolphins create ballets and symphonies that we don’t yet appreciate… if there is any other class of purposeful, sentient beings you think might exist, [think now of] them …
Because the next thing I want you to do is imagine a universe in which there are no such beings.  Such a world would be empty of meaning – no joy, no awe, no hope, no love. 

In such a world – however vast, however complex, however charged with energy – nothing would matter.  It is we – perhaps together with other beings of similar or greater capacity – who lend importance to events.  We are indeed the measure of all things.  We can comprehend the awesomeness of the cosmos, the delightful intricacy of a flower.  We can transcend our selfish genes.  We can seek, we can approach, we can even, perhaps, sometimes attain the true, the beautiful, and the good.  Therein lies our dignity.

— John Andrews

John’s description of the role of humans carrying the consciousness of creation reminds me of the words of Annie Dillard found in our hymnal – “We are here to abet creation and to witness to it, to notice each other’s beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.” 

John called out human’s unique role in being conscious; I would add to the “specialness” of the human species – conscience.  Again, our knowledge may be limited, but as far as we know, we are the only species that has a sense of moral awareness about right and wrong, of understanding what is actually our responsibility, and the impulses that move us to act.  This, too, is a special charge and position of our species. 

Consciousness and conscience – these are the human endowments we must nurture and grow faster than any other unique human quality.  We know enough about the interdependent nature of the world to know the web is in tatters.  We have collected abundant information and developed plenty of technological expertise to solve the problems we face.  But without fully developing human consciousness and conscience, we lack the strength and fortitude to live up to our full humanness.  Consciousness, the direct experience of the awesomely beautiful and complex world in which we live, leads us to love nature.  Conscience, to enliven us so that we might act for good, leads us to love ourselves.  We need generous helpings of both – consciousness and conscience – to love our way into the times ahead.

The world is on the brink. We are facing the pressing reality of climate change, particularly the rising surface and ocean temperatures of our planet, Earth.  The cause of that warming is clear:  human activities, most especially the production and combustion of carbon-based fuels, as well as agricultural activities such as factory-farming of animals and clear-cutting of rainforests.  The changes wrought by rising temperatures pose a risk to humans and the multitude of ecosystems of which we are a part, and on which we depend.  Climate change is real. It is here, now – not someday ‘out there.’ The changes are now in motion.

What do we do?

And you know there are lots of pragmatic steps each and every one of us can – and do – take every day. We recycle. We walk or bike. We use less paper, drink tap water, pick up litter, and eat lower on the food chain. We bring our own bags, we take the train.  We know how to do these individual actions.

But there’s a whole lot of space between the aspiration of our 7th principle and the practical steps we take each day.  This is the space for growth for us, so we can face the hard tasks before us. 

This is the space where we must show up as the curious, creative, empathetic – and yes, flawed – humans we are, to ‘remember who we are, to remember how we can live.’  This is the space where the lessons ‘earth teaches us’ become our root tradition, our primary lessons upon which all else can be built.  This is the space where ethics are crystallized, where “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community, [and] it is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  This is the space where the astonishing beauty of nature can break our hearts, and disturb our consciences, so we may begin again, in love.

I will be honest: this work is not for the faint-hearted.  Nor can it be done alone.  It may be odd to close a sermon with the hope we each feel our hearts sink, our stomachs twist.  But this is how we will answer this clarion call of our times:

Come, be fully human. You are needed.

Benediction: Excerpts from the Adorers of the Blood of Christ Land Ethic

Whereas, we Adorers of the Blood of Christ believe creation is a revelation of God, we proclaim that:
As Adorers, we honor the sacredness of all creation; we cultivate a mystical consciousness
that connects us to the Holy in all of life…
As students of Earth, we listen intently to Earth’s wisdom; we respect our interconnectedness and oneness with creation and learn what Earth needs to support life…
As prophets, we reverence Earth as a sanctuary where all life is protected; we strive to establish justice and right relationships so that all creation might thrive…
As advocates of Earth, we choose simple lifestyles that avoid excessive or harmful use of natural resources; we work in solidarity with all creation for a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.
As companions with creation, we enjoy and share its bounty gently and reverently; we seek collaborators to help implement land use policies and practices that are in harmony with our bioregions and ecosystems.
As co-creators, we participate in God’s dream for Earth; we offer new visions and vistas that expand consciousness and encourage creative expression…

— The Adorers of the Blood of Christ
The complete Land Ethic is downloadable here.
Image by Charles Mostoller for The Intercept

Sermon: Our Transforming Climate

This sermon was given by Rev. Alison Cornish on Earth Day 2018, at the Unitarian Society of Germantown in Philadelphia.

Readings  — two poems      

The Peace of Wild Things  by Wendell Berry   audio link
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World   by  Adam Zagajewski  text link
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Sermon: Our Transforming Climate        Rev. Alison Cornish

Thank you for your kind invitation to be with you this morning. When I visit faith communities in my role as Executive Director of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, I am often the only Unitarian Universalist in the room. So, it’s good to be ‘home.’ And to take advantage of being with fellow Unitarian Universalists, which gives a particular shape to a conversation about Care of our Common Home – as Pope Francis has spoken of it – and the challenges that come with climate change. There is a uniqueness, I believe, both in what Unitarian Universalists bring to the topic, and what the planetary challenge brings to Unitarian Universalism. In the end, perhaps there is an opportunity for transformation for all … for I know that is indeed a key aspect of our faith’s mission – to transform lives – ours, and those with whom we are in relationship.

I want to open my reflection this morning with a short reading. I’ll tell you who wrote it – and when it was written – after I read it! It’s from a sermon titled ‘Lessons from the Sierra Nevada’ –

I believe that if, on every Sunday morning before going to church, we could be lifted to a mountain-peak and see a horizon line of six hundred miles enfolding the copious splendor of the light on such a varied expanse; or if we could look upon a square mile of flowers representing all the species with which the Creative Spirit embroiders a zone; or if we could be made to realize the distance of the earth from the sun, the light of which travels every morning 12 millions of miles a minute to feed and bless us, and which the force of gravitation pervades without intermission to hold our globe calmly in its orbit and on its poise; if we could fairly perceive, through our outward senses, one or two features of the constant order and glory of nature, …our materialistic dullness would be broken, surprise and joy would be awakened, we should feel that we live amid the play of Infinite thought; and the devout spirit would be stimulated so potently that our hearts would naturally mount in praise and prayer.

OK, the fact that an entire paragraph is one sentence … as well as some of the word choices … should clue you in to the fact this wasn’t written recently. It’s an excerpt from an 1863 sermon written by Thomas Starr King – who was a minister in both the Unitarian and Universalist traditions long before our denominational merger.

What I hear King saying is that opening ourselves to the awesomeness and mystery and the teachings of this extraordinary planet on which we live – and upon which we depend – has the power to transform us. ‘…our materialistic dullness would be broken, surprise and joy would be awakened.’ To turn our heads and hearts so significantly that we will live in new and different ways.


What a different view of transformation this offers than what we’re fed as a daily diet by the ‘usual sources’ – a steady drumbeat of information, statistics, numbers, facts (fake and not) —not that I’m arguing against sketching reality as it really is. We need to face the facts, to know the reality of the state of our planetary home in a time of climate change. We need to understand the links to human activities: specifically that the combustion of fossil fuels for energy production, transportation and agriculture is causing the Earth’s atmosphere to heat up at a rapid rate, disrupting the planetary systems upon which we all depend for our very lives, and outstripping our —and other species’— ability to adapt.

But what’s as clear as these facts is that more, and more finely detailed, information has not, to date at least, led to a transformation of human behavior. In the words of Shirdi Sai Baba, an Indian yogic master, ‘You seek too much information and not enough transformation.’ Indeed, too much information can actually work against us – in powerful ways.

A few years ago, the Social Capital Project published a major study of American’s attitudes and worldviews, especially as related to the environment and climate change. Their report sought to go beyond the dualities of ‘believe/not believe’ and the polarities of liberal/conservative/
Republican/Democrat/Libertarian/Green. It was an investigation of values and demographics.

Perhaps at another time, we can try unpacking what language speaks best to whom when it comes to these issues. But tucked into a corner of the report, I found a too-brief section on the obstacles each of us face – no matter our demographic markers –in making our way to a path of mobilization and action – indeed, transformation – of taking on the very real crisis of climate change. See where you might land in these descriptions:

Environmental ‘fatalism’ – ‘It’s just too little, too late …’ Though we value – and take in – accurate information, you and I know that the news is not good. It’s extraordinary that so much information from far-flung parts of the world is so accessible to us – so we can watch ice melting in Antarctica, Indonesian rainforests burning, soaring temperatures in Phoenix, all in the flick of a TV remote. But to what end? Does it transform us … or shut us down?

And if all that news does manage to motivate rather than discourage, it’s easy to succumb to another kind of environmental ‘overload’ – the challenge is just too big and overwhelming.

What’s the most important thing to do? ‘Tell me again, switching light bulbs will help the planet … how?’

The authors of the study name other ways we resist transformation … and as I read these, I thought they are perhaps felt particularly keenly by folks most likely to be found in UU congregations.

There’s the specter of environmental ‘sainthood’ that haunts — a worry that, no matter what we do, ‘We’ll never be green enough.’ And then something the authors dub “environmental ‘cognition’” —it’s just plain too hard to wrap our minds around climate change because it isn’t a simple cause-and-effect problem. Environmentalism came of age in the era of pollution.

Then, something could be identified, targeted, and cleaned up — but how do you ‘clean up’ carbon?

And finally, the study points to “environmental ‘elitism.’” ‘Working on these issues is fine for those with money and time – or who are urban, or white, or professional … ’ But what about everyone who is facing the immediate and pressing problems of merely staying safe, employed, fed, insured, housed?

So, do any of these feel familiar?

In my work with PA IPL over the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve become convinced that the only way to overcome these obstacles is to start with oneself —because, as we know from countless sources, the only thing we can truly change is our own attitudes, behaviors, and actions.

Mindfulness is somewhat of a buzzword these days – but what I like about it in relation to working on climate change is that it offers us a way forward that we actually have control over.

Mindfulness is not some wimpy, weak response. Mindfulness is a discipline and also a call.

Here are words from Thich Nhat Hahn (2008):

The bells of mindfulness are calling out to us, trying to wake us up, reminding us to look deeply at our impact on the planet. The bells of mindfulness are sounding. All over the Earth, we are experiencing floods, droughts, and massive wildfires. Sea ice is melting in the Artic and hurricanes and heat waves are killing thousands. The forests are fast disappearing, the deserts are growing, species are becoming extinct every day, and yet we continue to consume, ignoring the ringing bells. All of us know that our beautiful green planet is in danger. Our way of walking on the Earth has a great influence on animals and plants. Yet we act as if our daily lives have nothing to do with the condition of the world.

We are like sleepwalkers, not knowing what we are doing or where we are heading.

Whether we can wake up or not depends on whether we can walk mindfully on our Mother Earth. The future of all life, including our own, depends on our mindful steps.

So let us pause. Let us listen. May we hear the bells of mindfulness that are sounding all across our planet.

How do we ‘hear the bells of mindfulness’ —how do we wake up, and stay awake? The words of Thich Nhat Hahn call us to practices where we might ‘walk mindfully on the Earth.’ We are called to heal ourselves, and thus, our connection with Earth and all that live upon it.

Mindfulnessis an antidote to barriers to action, and we are badly in need of that!

In her essay The Sacredness of Earth Day, Gail Straub writes

Each conscious Earth-friendly act — composting, reusing, recycling, repairing, carpooling, eco-wise shopping, and conserving water and energy — is also an act of spiritual mindfulness. It is the degree of mindfulness that we bring to our most ordinary daily acts of sustainability that determines the sacredness of life. Indeed, it is mindfulness that transforms the mundane into the sacred. The recycling bins become daily rounds of Earth awareness, the water and energy saved prayers of gratitude, and the rides shared a collective offering to clean, fresh air… As an antidote to the addiction of consumerism, [mindful] stewardship heals the spiritual emptiness at the core of much of modern life. Ultimately, skillful stewardship is a blending of reverence with responsibility…

A blend of reverence with responsibility … as I UU, I say —where do I sign up?

How do we begin this shift, to see habits or hobbies or chores or must-dos or should-dos as acts of spiritual mindfulness?

Here’s my recipe for Individuals Who Want to Engage Climate Change on a Daily Basis as a Spiritual Practice of Mindfulness.

First, choose a practice. Choice is important!  We are more likely to stick with something we choose than having it thrust upon us. Will it be conserving water?  Composting?  Picking up litter?  Using public transit?  Walking?  Try it out — is it a good fit for you?  Will you face it with grumbling and resentment, or engagement and curiosity?  Can you do it with intention, as a routine (not just when you feel like it)?  Does it hold the potential for new insights, learnings, ah ha moments?  Is it joyful?

Now, think of ways you can spread your practice. How is it shareable, teachable, bloggable?  Get the word out about what you’re doing, invite others along, or even help them find their own practices.

Most important (and do not skip this!): articulate —for yourself, and those around you, how your practice connects to climate change. What story can you tell about making — if not a dent, at least a nick — in your carbon footprint?  What’s your personal role in making change happen by managing carbon in your own life?

Even as we engage in spiritual practices of mindfulness, we still need collective action through policy change, community efforts, and political will. But I am convinced those efforts are more likely to succeed if they emerge from personal commitments to practices. Why?

Practices … allow us to stay in touch with the challenge of climate change on a tangible, daily basis – so it doesn’t get abstract, or something we read about in the paper in far-off places, or times. It’s here. It’s now. It’s real. Just like our practice.

Practices … keeps us honest; because we are taking personal responsibility for the immense carbon footprint those of us in the U.S. have, using a huge percentage of the planet’s carbon budget.

Practices … empower us to speak authentically to policy makers and politicians —we can say ‘I’m doing what I can … I’m asking you to do what you can, too.’

Practices … build social values and norms. To take on a spiritual practice that connects us to Earth and its care and see it as just ‘what we do,’ not something unusual, has the potential to change the conversation with others who are casting about for what they can do.

Practices … wake us up, keep us aware, noticing the world around us, in all its glory and brokenness.

Ultimately, practices … inspire us to take on more, bigger, changes. Because as essential as they are, individual practices simply aren’t enough. They matter, they help — but in order to truly make a difference, we need to work together — as communities, and I would say particularly as communities of faith. Here I borrow some language of one of our own, Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams. In his book Transforming Liberalism, Adams spoke of several different themes of liberal religion —and in them, I find the grounding for congregations’ work on climate — and perhaps for Unitarian Universalists in particular.

Adams wrote that to be religious means having a particular world view that draws on certain root metaphors. For Unitarian Universalists, our worldview is embedded in our seventh principle,  “we are a part of an interdependent web of all existence.”  A part — not the whole — intimately and intricately connected to all of life. When we recognize this, we can become reflectors, and amplifiers, of this amazing Earth. We offer praise and thanksgiving for its beauty, as well as lament to address our distress at its desecration. To lift up the glory of the world as we have experienced, yes loved it, with joy and hope, this is no small thing, and desperately, hungrily needed. Gail Straub concludes her essay for Earth Day with these words:

Understanding that our destiny is forever linked with the fate of the Earth, that the health of our souls is inextricably related to the health of our planet, is at the heart of stewardship as a spiritual practice… Walking the path of stewardship, we take it one day at a time, just as we do with our spiritual practice. We aspire toward a fresh beginner’s mind as we compost, plant trees, shop with green values, conserve, recycle, reuse and repair… Gently, inexorably, both our spiritual practice and our stewardship are changing us, and changing the world.

May this moment in time — urgent, precious —
grant us an opening for transformation —
of ourselves, of one another, of Earth.

Closing Words         

In the Midst of a World  by Rebecca Parker  text link
In the midst of a world
marked by tragedy and beauty
there must be those
who bear witness
against unnecessary destruction
and who, with faith,
rise and lead
in freedom,
with grace and power.

There must be those who
speak honestly
and do not avoid seeing
what must be seen
of sorrow and outrage,
or tenderness,
and wonder.

There must be those whose
grief troubles the water
while their voices sing
and speak
refreshed worlds.

There must be those
whose exuberance
rises with lovely energy
that articulates
earth’s joys.

There must be those who
are restless for
respectful and loving
companionship among human beings,
whose presence invites people
to be themselves without fear.

There must be those
who gather with the congregation
of remembrance and compassion
draw water from
old wells,
and walk the simple path
of love for neighbor.

There must be communities of people
who seek to do justice

love kindness and walk humbly with God,who call on the strength of
to heal,
and bless life.
There must be
religious witness.

new hymn: O God, We’ve Prayed in Wind and Rain

The Rev. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette has recently returned to Pennsylvania as co-pastor of Overbrook Presbyterian Church.  She is a prolific hymn-writer, and has shared her newest hymn with the IPL community.  Carolyn wrote this piece in response to the storms of late August 2017 — Harvey, in the United States, and the devastating storms that hit India, Nepal, and Bangladesh that same week.

The language of this hymn is theistic, and while Carolyn’s own tradition is Christian, the language of the hymn is not specifically so — which opens the hymn to use in a variety of contexts, denominations, and traditions.

Carolyn has given her permission for free use in Pennsylvania congregations to support the relief efforts.  Contact us for a 1/2 sheet-ready version of the text sent to us by Rev. Gillette.  We’ve published the very beginning here, and linked to Rev. Carolyn’s website for the continuation… where you can also browse the full index of her hymns.

tune: Amazing Grace

O God, we’ve prayed in wind and rain and now we pray once more
For those who felt the hurricane and heard the waters roar. 

We pray for those who watched the storm destroy the life they knew,
Who wait in shelters, tired and worn, and wonder what to do.

We thank you, God, for acts of love not bound by race or creed,
For hands that reach across the flood to all who are in need.

We pray for others…      [jump to full text of this hymn and hymn index]

Tune: Virginia Harmony, 1831 Arr. Edwin O. Excell, 1900.
Alternative Tune: ST. ANNE CM Attr. William Croft, 1708 (“Our God, Our Help in Ages Past”).
Text: Copyright © 2017 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.
Email Carolyn:   Website: