“How do we pray when the land itself is mourning, the people languish, and even the fish are perishing? How do we pray about the things breaking our hearts — the bleached coral, acidic oceans and animals disappearing?” the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas asked the virtual congregation at the 9:15 a.m. EDT Tuesday, June 30, morning devotional on CHQ Assembly.
Her sermon title was “Faith for the Earth: What is Breaking Our Hearts?” The scripture text was Hosea 4:1-3.
“Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel; for the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing.”
Bullitt-Jonas asked, “Can we just shrug it off, shut down, go numb and in despair? The culture gives us endless opportunities to turn mindless with entertainment and the distraction of shopping.”
Prayer, she said, is an essential element in fighting those distractions. Action is necessary but “we need strength for the hard road. If there is not knowledge of God in the land, we have a spiritual disconnect and Hosea is right — the land is in mourning.”
Hosea was telling Israel that there was a broken relationship with God; therefore the people had a broken relationship with each other and with the land. “The remedy, Hosea said, was repentance, and to dismantle the systems that destroy life and reconnect with God,” Bullitt-Jonas said.
She continued, “I am all in with Hosea. Climate change is a spiritual crisis. We need to restore ourselves and encourage a lively, vital connection with a divine source that brings love. We need spiritual resilience rooted in a higher power.”
In Rooted and Rising, her anthology of spiritual practices that sustain life, Bullitt-Jonas wrote a chapter on prayer.
“Prayer is expressive, embodied and visceral,” she said. “How else do we pray about ecocide; how else do we break through the inertia and despair? It is important to feel our emotional reaction, and we need prayerful emotion to protest what is happening.”
Bullitt-Jonas described one of her prayer practices. Near her house, a company is clearing the woods to build co-housing. Co-housing.org describes their movement as “a community designed to foster connection,” where physical spaces allow easy interaction among neighbors in common areas like kitchens, dining spaces and gardens.
“I like the idea and I like the people I have met who are going to live there, but I grieve the loss of the trees,” she said. “They are living presences that keep life on earth intact. Preservation of our forests is critical.”
She goes outside to pray and sings to the trees, making up the words and music as she prays. “I sing about the grief I feel for what is lost and what I am losing, and the outrage I feel that the trees are cut to the roots and their bodies chipped up and sold,” she said.
She continued, “I protest the powers that be, the business-as-usual, that expand the use of coal, expand oil pipelines and treat the earth like they are having a ‘going out of business sale.’ I sing praise for the beauty of the earth and celebrate that we have a living world.”
Bullitt-Jonas sings for renewed action to save the trees and the world. “I can feel the Spirit moving through me. I feel more alive and connected with myself and my world,” she said.
There is a need for public lament, like the people who are praying in the streets, in love. There is also a need to pray alone, in silence, to hear the inner voice of love.
Bullitt-Jonas recommended “A Passion for the Planet,” an hour-long oratorio about climate change by Geoffrey Hudson, to the congregation as another way to pray. According to Hudson’s website, the oratorio blends “scientific prose, poetry, and sacred texts from many faiths, (as) the libretto traces an arc from beauty and gratitude into darkness and out again into hope.”
“I encourage you to find ways to restore the knowledge of God in the land,” Bullitt-Jonas said. “Prayer gives us union with the love that is stronger than death. Guided by that love, you will know what you need to do and take action for the emergency we are in.”
The Rev. George Wirth, a retired Presbyterian minister from Atlanta, presided over the pre-recorded service in Chautauqua’s Hall of Christ. Chautauqua’s interim organist, Joshua Stafford, improvised the prelude and postlude on the Tallman Tracker Organ. He also played the hymn tune “Morning Glory, Starlit Sky.” Before the sermon, Robert A. Jonas played a rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” on the shakuhachi. Written by Thomas Dorsey after his wife and son died in childbirth, the hymn was one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorites, and he asked for it to be played at his funeral. Support for this week’s services is provided by the Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree, Jr., Chaplaincy Fund and the John William Tyrell Endowment for Religion.