Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Miss Rumphius
distributed 1/8/10 - ©2010

The turning of a new year, the hanging of new calendars, the growing daylight after the winter solstice -- all these stimulate thoughts of new beginnings. The hankering for transformation is embodied in the tradition of new year's resolutions. A far deeper theme of change and renewal is central to the Christian faith.

We're now a week into 2010, and my guess is that about half of the well-intentioned resolutions from December 31 have already gone by the wayside. The ones most likely to fail were rash pledges to do something totally new or dramatically different. While sudden conversions in belief and behavior can happen, most of us will move slowly through deep changes. Religious educator Katherine Turpin writes about "ongoing conversion" as more realistic than sudden transformation.

An old hymn makes the point that "new occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth." Major changes in how we think and live will be instinctive and durable when they align with a changed awareness about the world and our place in it. We'll know that our hoped-for new beginnings have come when what was once normal and treasured becomes grating and uncouth.

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At the church where I am a member, the children's story during worship is often a reading from a "secular" children's book. Stories are chosen that affirm a virtue or value that is important in the congregation's faith perspective. After the reading, a gentle tie is made to parallel religious teachings.

A long-time favorite book has been Miss Rumphius a lovely story about a woman's intentional and unconventional life seeking adventure and meaning. The last and most challenging of her life goals is to spread beauty in the world. She finally achieves that goal by scattering flower seeds across her English countryside.

Ever couple of years, the story is pulled out and read to the children in church. Adults in the congregation would nod and smile when they heard the opening lines. That appreciation changed, though, the last time Miss Rumphius was used.

Last spring, as the narrative concluded with her sowing of lupine seeds, I saw quite a few people squirming in their seats. They were shaking their heads instead of nodding. (I noticed, because I was one of them.) After church, while we slurped our coffee and munched our cookies, we talked about the discomfort we felt.

"Miss R. was spreading an invasive species, wasn't she?" was the gist of the comments. The lupines that she seeded took over the hillsides, displacing other plants, and disrupting the ecosystem. Other people listened in to our coffee hour conversation, and they, too, quickly realized the implications of Miss Rumphius' attempt to beautify the world.

Our increasing awareness of ecological relationships and fragile habitats made a favorite and familiar story less appealing. There is much about the story that is wonderful -- her setting of life goals, breaking out of social expectations, and questing for beauty in the world. But the thoughtless sowing of flowers without an appreciation for environmental impacts doesn't sound nice anymore. That form of spreading beauty is not something that we want to teach our kids, at least not without some serious discussion. Time makes ancient good uncouth.

The church's copy of the book now has a note pasted in the front, pointing out the ecological error that is central to the story. I don't think we'll be hearing it again during worship. Instead, the Sunday morning time with children has been telling other tales that speak more clearly about our environmental commitments. Some of those new books may become our next favorites.

The most recent reading of Miss Rumphius was a moment of new beginning for many in the congregation. It was a sudden realization of our changed awareness, and of shifted values. Collectively, we have come to see a greater beauty in ecological health than in hillsides covered with purple lupine blossoms.

That change came slowly and quietly. There hadn't been a sermon or educational program on invasive species. Nobody led a campaign against the evil Miss Rumphius. Through the last few years, though, a growing and pervasive sense of being part of the intricate web of creation has taken hold in the church. Our theologically grounded awareness of ecological responsibility now shapes the way we hear a lovely children's story -- just as it leads us to pull things that can be recycled out of the trash cans.

That is what real change looks like. When a beloved and familiar story sets your teeth on edge, then you know that a different set of values has taken hold.

The disappearance of Miss Rumphius from church is an indicator that this congregation -- and perhaps the larger society, too -- is "getting it". The spontaneous reaction from so many members of the church indicates that ecological awareness is starting to be written in the DNA of the congregation.

New beginnings come slowly, and take hold in surprising ways. A rash resolution on New Years Eve isn't likely to be followed if some of those precursors have not taken root. On the flip side, a congregation's commitment to environmental stewardship will be lived more fully when the values and knowledge which shape that commitment have been affirmed and nurtured.

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With all that in mind, I want to offer a vigorous recommendation, and a word of caution. Our very good friends at Interfaith Power & Light are calling for a "National Preach-in on Global Warming" the weekend of February 13-14, 2010. We strongly affirm this initiative to bring climate change into pulpits. Please visit their site, register your intention, and make use of the resources that they'll be offering.

But I also offer a recommendation, especially in churches where such topics have not been part of the worship life or theological reflection. In the experience of Eco-Justice Ministries, a strong sermon that comes "out of the blue" is likely to be more controversial and less effective than one that grows out of established roots. (See the article on our website about the three layers of environmental preaching.)

I encourage preachers who are raising the topic for the first time to use the next few weeks to lay some groundwork for a sermon on global warming. Reinforce the ethical theme that will guide your climate change sermon by making reference to topics that are more familiar to the congregation and in your preaching: global justice, responsible stewardship, the importance of political advocacy, etc.

Real change in our personal beliefs and behavior, and real change in our congregations, is a gradual process of "ongoing conversion". Significant steps in that transformation will take hold when they build on an existing foundation. But when that foundation is present, then what once seemed good and normal -- Miss Rumphius sowing lupines, or power plants spewing carbon dioxide -- will become uncouth and unacceptable.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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