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

The Creation Is Groaning
distributed 5/18/12 - ©2012

I often hear concerned Christians quote Romans 8 as they appeal to their congregations and denominations to engage more actively in ministries of Earth care. "The whole creation is groaning", they proclaim, lifting an image of Earth suffering because of our abuse.

Earth is suffering -- far more than I want to imagine -- but that is not what Paul was saying when he wrote to the church in Rome. We really need to read the whole sentence (Romans 8:22-23), and remember the context of the entire chapter.

"We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." (OK -- we can see why nobody quotes the whole convoluted sentence.)

I think it is both theologically essential and strategically helpful to remember that the image is one of giving birth, not of endless suffering inflicted from afar. This verse, and the whole passage, speaks a message of hope and transformation that applies to us and the whole creation. That message is powerful good news for us all today.

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A long time maternity nurse shared this description of labor and birthing:

The transition stage of labor is the interval during which the cervix goes from 7-8 centimeters to complete dilation (10cm). During this time the mother usually notes a drastic change and may respond by getting very anxious, and if she is not properly supported and prepared, she may feel panic. As in the early stages of labor, she can assist only by relaxing. If she loses control, fights the contractions, she will increase her own fear, which in turn increases her discomfort. For most women, this is the most difficult stage because the interlude seems to threaten the loss of control and, momentarily at least, to be without fruit.

"Groaning in labor pains" refers to this time of transition, as well as the actual pushing during delivery. It is a time of immense pain -- a pain that many women knowingly and joyously accept because it leads to new life. Birthing is hard work.

The nurse's description speaks to a reality that I think we all have experienced as we witness the exploitation and damage being inflicted on the whole Earth community, and as we hope for the movement into a restored web of life. We know the anxiety and panic as we see everything changing, whether for good or ill. We may fear that death and destruction will overwhelm our planet before something new is born. And, most tragically, we clearly see how the entrenched interests of our society -- the fossil fuel industries, those who are determined to hold onto their wealth and power, those whose beliefs will not allow them to accept change -- are lashing out in a desperate and fearful struggle to maintain their control.

The words from the delivery room nurse tell us that we have to go about the birthing process in a different way. We must relax, we must relinquish the striving for control, and we must allow the process to flow toward a new way of being.

This letting go of control is not a passive process. When a woman in labor acts to relax, she is applying great concentration and intense will. She has prepared herself for the stages of birth, she is surrounded by a supportive community, and she is motivated by the new life that is coming. Because choices are made, it is possible to move through anxiety and to avoid panic.

The very contemporary implications of the birth analogy are evident in the appropriately named "transition" movement which began in Britain and is spreading world-wide. The vision of this movement looks to local communities that have engaged in "collective creativity to unleash an extraordinary and historic transition to a future beyond fossil fuels; a future that is more vibrant, abundant and resilient; one that is ultimately preferable to the present." The transition movement is taking place through intentional and well-organized programs in well over 100 US communities, and is being expressed in countless other grassroots efforts.

The first of four key assumptions that shape the transition approach connects vividly with the image of a woman entering into labor -- a process which cannot be stopped. The movement assumes that "life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and that it's better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise." Rather than fighting to maintain a way of life that is impossible to sustain, we need to actively relax and facilitate the process of new birth.

This past weekend, the Rev. Jim Deming, minister of environmental justice for the national United Church of Christ, was in Denver leading a series of programs for area churches. On several occasions, Jim pointed to the transition movement as a way in which congregations can become engaged in community ministries that move us toward a more just and sustainable future. A local church that participates in a "transition town" initiative is being a midwife who guides and supports the birthing process of a renewed creation. Congregations of any denomination can be faithful and effective by connecting with, or initiating, a transition town project in their community.

Transition -- in an actual birth, and in the transformation of society -- is hard work. It requires both our active and intentional labor, and our letting go of the deep desire for control and stability.

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Last week , I also quoted Paul. I explored his difficult good news that we are called to a ministry of reconciliation. In this time of ecological crisis, our work of reconciliation is one that must include the whole human community, and it must reach out to re-establish right relationships with all of creation.

That godly work of reconciliation is one aspect of how we give birth to a new global society. In the process of reconciliation, too, we can not control everything, because we -- we who have caused so much hurt and destruction -- must be changed. In birth and reconciliation, we can look with joy toward the promise of new and richer life, and we open ourselves to creative power beyond our control as we move through intensely challenging times of transition.

"We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now ..." Let us give up our struggle for control, let us move through our anxiety, and let us do the focused work of relaxing so that God's realm may be born among us.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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