Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Saying Goodbye
distributed 10/12/02 - ©2002

My father-in-law is dying. My wife and I were able to take a few days this week to visit him in Illinois.

When I returned to the office this morning, and started returning phone calls, a colleague who knew that I was out of town asked if I had a good trip. I explained the circumstances, and that this was not a fun vacation for us. My father-in-law's cancer has spread, and he won't be with us much longer. It was important to spend a day with him at this point in his life journey.

These times of transition are always hard in a family. They remind us of the importance of expressing our love, remembering our history, and seeking reconciliation. They also connect us with the grand cycles of life and death, and bring us into touch with our own mortality.

As individuals and families, and within our communities of faith, we do well to be intentional about giving thanks for those we love, and acknowledging these transitions. So, yes, at that level it was a good and healing trip.

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A few months ago, I received a note from a friend who wrote about the importance of taking trips before it is too late. His words sound very similar to my experience this week, but the context is very different.

He wrote: "I find myself haranguing my son to get out in the back-country more, not because of the joy it brings you or the sacredness of it, but because I am not sure how much longer it will last or be accessible. For example, he is a diver and I think he should get down the Great Barrier Reef before it is too late."

What an astonishing new problem.

Get down to the Great Barrier Reef before it is too late. Go to Glacier National Park while there are still glaciers. Visit the islands of the South Pacific before they go under water. Go to Kenya to see the megafauna -- lions and rhinos and giraffes -- while they still exist in the wild. Get to the Arctic and explore the tundra before it thaws.

It is not like going to see the colors of the fall foliage before it is too late -- for this year. These are trips to say goodbye. Go to see something that is about to disappear forever.

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Throughout human history, people have sought the theological and practical tools to deal with the death of relatives and friends. But never before have we needed to deal with the death of whole communities of life and the transformation of geological features. Never before have humans witnessed this sort of devastation and destruction -- caused by our own species impacts on the global environment.

It is good and helpful to find closure at the end of my father-in-law's life. But I don't like the spirit of acceptance that could come with visits to endangered habitats.

The chance to visit the Great Barrier Reef should not make it easier to accept the destruction of that treasure-trove of life. Rather, it should stir any visitor to intense efforts to halt the processes of death and destruction.

For the most part, our rituals around death are designed to lead us toward acceptance. The sorts of family time that we claimed this week, and the established routines of funerals, help us move through a painful disturbance, and then to recover a normal pattern to our lives.

But the disturbances to our natural world are not just painful and personal. The environmental disruptions around us preclude a return to normalcy.

We are coming face-to-face with phenomena that we are not equipped to address -- practically, psychologically or spiritually. We need new ways to face death on this scale. We need experiences, stories and rituals that will transform us, both individually and collectively. We don't need acceptance; we need conversion to a sustainable way of life.

Can we in the church rise to this new occasion? Can we compose prayers and hymns and liturgies that serve a new purpose? As we come face-to-face with a new scale of death, can we find the hope and the courage and the vision and the commitment that will move us into a new way of living in the world?

In my family's encounter with death and dying this fall, I pray that we may find acceptance and healing. But in our planetary encounter with death and dying, I pray that we may never simply say goodbye to large segments of God's creation.

Save us, O God, from anything that leads us to quiet acceptance of the Earth's deep distress.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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