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Earth Day Sunday: Covenant with the Earth (April 26)

by Rev. Dr. Bob Shore-Goss1

Robert Shore-Goss AGYou bestow upon us your Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races…”2

A number of years ago, I with my congregation MCC/UCC in the Valley, initiated a new member into our church.  She remains on our rolls, and she needs a great deal of pastoral care. She has been traumatized, exploited, suffered rape, experienced profound losses of life and on-degradation. .

Pastoral care is an old practice originating in the Hebrew Scriptures with priests, prophets, and wise leaders who addressed the lives of the Hebrews and their experience. We see that in Jesus’ ministry and compassionate care for the poor and the outcast. It is developed in the post-Easter movement of disciples in Acts of Apostles, who shared their goods with the poor and the election of deacons to care for the Greek-speaking widows in Jerusalem. The Jesus movement became an urban movement three years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It spread to the cities of the Roman Empire. By the mid-second century, a plague afflicted the major urban centers of the empire. The Christians did not flee the cities and provided care for the sick and dying whether they were Christians or non-Christians. This care for the needs of the sick and dying left a moral imprint on non-Christians, and because of the Christian heroic care for the sick, there was massive conversion to the Christian movement. There are many lessons to learn from the lived experience of our Christian ancestors.

Pastor (the Latin word for “Shepherd”) emerges from the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and the dramatic scene in John 21 when Jesus instructs Peter to “feed my lambs and feed my sheep.”  It was understood as tending to the needs of the flock: refreshing, strengthening, protecting, guiding and comforting congregants facing challenges, restoring people to spiritual health and well-being, and leading the congregation to pursue a deeper relationship with Christ.  It later evolved into caring programs of the clergy for congregants and spiritual care in monasteries, and it was called “care of the souls” (cura animarum). This Latin terms involves spiritual instruction and direction, administration of sacraments, and sermons. All these services concentrated on tending the flock.

Pastoral care has evolved in Protestant and Catholic churches into spiritual counseling and a wide range of caring activities from spiritual mentoring to hospital visitations, chaplaincies, counseling and prayer to deep listening and responding compassionately to a person in need.  I have on my bookshelf The Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling, some 1400 pages.3  And it is one of the few books I have not read cover to cover.

Designating this care (of the soul) as pastoral may refer either to the person of the religious leader or to the motivation/attitude characterizing the caregiver. In the first instance, pastoral care refers to any ordained and acknowledged religious leaders who bring the resources, wisdom, and authority of the religious community to bear on human distress. But pastoral care can also be understood as to be provided by any representative of the religious community who is perceived to stand for or reflect the values and commitments of the group.4

In our congregation, my husband Rev. Joe Shore-Goss has led our pastoral team of clergy and deacons through reading a number of books on pastoral care and self-care. One, in particular, was John Savage’s Listening & Caring Skills.5   It was to teach the pastoral team the art of listening to folks and communicating an empathy of being with them in particular challenges.  We began to listen to the Earth, specifically becoming mindful of our church garden, natural surroundings and companion animals, and beginning to widen that circle to learn and care about environmental justice.

In 2006, we, as a congregation, watched the documentary Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s documentary on global warming and climate change. We started on the road to listen to the Spirit and to listen to the Earth. And we incorporated it into our communion practice before the servers and celebrants received communion: “We offer the grace of this communion for the poor and the homeless, those suffering from war and hunger, and for the Earth which has been so exploited, ravaged, and harmed by humanity.”  Our worship remembers the Earth each week, and eventually we realized that the Earth had to be added to our roster of members in 2007.  We understood Jesus’ commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lk. 10:27) not only extending that love and care to one another but also to the Earth. Pastoral care too became a congregation responsibility not only of our pastoral team but of the entire church, and we included the Earth.

Pastoral care for the Earth and life has become a central ministry for our church.  It originates from the notion that we as members of the Christ’s church are covenanted together.  It has also included our covenant relationship with the Earth.  We took steps to covenant with California Interfaith Power & Light, ( http://interfaithpower.org/ ) on reducing our energy usage.  First, rather than having ideas come from myself, I showed after service for six weeks, one of the six short segments from the video Renewal.6  After these 10-15 minute short clips, we discussed what we might do.  The films sparked creative responses from stop buying Styrofoam cups to bringing coffee cups, to recycling, to start to compost, to growing organic vegetables and sharing citrus fruits from our gardens, to replacing bulbs with CFL(s) and LED(s) whenever possible.  The congregants came up with the idea of a tankless water heater to replace a water heater that warmed the water all day long.  We were determined to model what it might look for a Christian community to live responsibly and caring with the Earth. And this did not stop with the church, for congregants began to develop these habits in their homes. Once you open and empower change, it has a life of its own in the congregation.

We were presented with AN opportunity when contacted by a California company on solar panels.  It was only a dream. Our huge outdated electrical box always scared me. I thought it would cost too much for the return on the investment.  The board chose to make the decision with the congregation, and we held a congregational meeting. It was a unanimous congregational vote to choose a 20 year lease with the option of buying out the lease after 10 years.

We began to incorporate more educational programs around Earthcare, included worship and sermons about the Earth, and invited speakers to meet with us to learn more about our responsibilities to the Earth.  In three years we scored 75 on the UCC Green Justice Congregation scale, we now score over 140.  We hold the scale as a diagnostic for measuring our progress in reaching a carbon neutral footprint as a congregation. It took years to attain this because we realized that solar panels were wonderful for energy conservation but the real work had to be our conversion to sustained Earthcare.

So for Earth Day Sunday, take the first step and make a covenant with the Earth:

Earth Covenant (after the sermon)

We, the   (Church Name), proclaim our love for God’s Creation and profess our belief that the Earth, ourselves, and all life are an interconnected as part of the sacred Web of Life. We acknowledge that the Web of Life is the Body of risen Christ.

We covenant together to commit ourselves as a church and individuals in the great work of healing, preservation and justice as we strive to reduce our individual and collective negative impact on the environment and to repair the damage that has been done to God’s Earth. In worship and church life we will express our appreciation and give praise for the Earth and display a reverence for the Earth community of life.  We commit ourselves to principles of taking only what we need, clean up our damage to Earth we do, and keep the Earth in repair for the future.7

We make this covenant in the hope and faith that through our Earth care we will be able to help improve and sustain the health of the land, air and water for the benefit of all current and future inhabitants of this Planet. Amen!

As part of your Earth Day covenant, I suggest three actions for your congregation:

1) Take the Green Justice Congregational question to learn where you and your congregation are on the journey to becoming an environmental justice church. We take it every year to measure our progress. Download it:8
2) Contact your local Interfaith Power & Light Coordinator.9
3) Plan on attending the Training Day for Environmental Justice Team for the conference on May 16th. It is free.  Or attend the workshop at Annual Gathering with Allis Druffel and myself: “Building An Earth-centered Church.”

With this initial covenant and three action items, you and your congregation can begin to make the Earth a member of your church and extend pastoral care to the Earth and all life.  I have come to believe that if our congregations fall in love with the Earth, they will stand up and fight for the Earth. I share with you a possibility of starting this process in your own church by covenanting with the Earth on Earth Day Sunday, April 26th this year.

_______________________

1Christ in the Valley (North Hollywood, CA). He received a doctorate in Comparative Religion and Theology, specializing in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and Theology from Harvard University and is author and co-editor of nine books, working on a book on eco-the  Rev. Dr. Robert Shore-Goss is Senior Pastor/Theologian at MCC United Church of ology ( www.mischievousspiritandtheology.com ).  MCC United Church of Christ has a carbon neutral footprint   The church has attained level four, scoring over a 100 on the UCC Green Justice Congregational scale ( http://www.ucc.org/environmental-ministries_just-green-congregations  )and received a Green Oscar for environmental advocacy from California Power and Light (2011).

2Jane Fisher Hoffman, Covenant: A Study for the United Church of Christ, Cleveland, United Church Christ of Press, 2008, 35.

3Rodney Hunter (General Editor) and Nancy J. Ramsay (Expanded Editor), Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling, Nashville Abingdon Press, 2005.

4I.O. Mills, Pastoral Care (History, Traditions, and Definitions) in Dictionary Pastoral Care and Counseling, 836.

5John Savage, Listening & Caring Skills, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1996.

6 Renewal: Stories from America’s Religious-Environmental Movement(DVD) Can be purchased from Interfaith Power & Light: http://www.interfaithpowerandlight.org/resources/films/

7These three principles Sallie McFague proposes for household rules for living on the Earth: Sallie McFague, A New Climate for Theology: God, World, and Global Warming,   Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2008. (kindle format)

8 http://www.ucc.org/environmental-ministries_just-green-congregations

9In Southern California, the coordinator is Allis Druffel:  allis@interfaithpower.org

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