Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Worship and Listening
distributed 2/22/13 - ©2013

Through Lent this year, Eco-Justice Notes will be exploring several qualities of worship that is richly ecological and transformational.

A psalm says, "O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise." (51:15) But our worship will be misguided if all of the emphasis is on what we say and do.

Genuine worship, transformative worship, worship that is relevant in this time of Earth's great distress will involve a great deal of careful listening. What's more, such worship will, in turn, lead us toward more attentive lives that are able to hear fresh news about God in the world.

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Last Sunday, tens of thousands of citizens gathered in Washington, DC, to demand action on climate change, and to rally against the Keystone XL pipeline. I didn't make the trip to the East -- tempting as that was -- and chose instead to be part of a parallel rally held here in Denver. Our group was much smaller, but equally passionate.

At the rally, I heard truth from a 12-year-old. This young man spoke for those who are just beginning to grow up in a world that is already damaged by pollution and climate change. He rapped, "The ruling generation's gotta wake up now, and our generation's gonna show you how." And I heard truth from two young Native American women, representing the Idle No More movement in Canada and the US. They spoke of broken treaties, threatened communities, and devastated forests and polluted water in ancestral lands.

These were authentic voices speaking from personal experiences very different from my own. Their words did not dwell on scientific facts, or focus on actions to be taken by the President and Congress. They spoke to me with a more basic truth about the profound damage being inflicted on our world, and about the culture that knowingly and intentionally is causing that devastation. They pulled me outside of my own experience and my own self-interest with their testimony, and that was a holy thing.

It pains me to realize that such voices are rarely, if ever, part of our worship. These youth are not invited to stand in the pulpit with their words of truth, and those who preach seldom quote or affirm such a message. The racial minorities and the poor who are most impacted by urban pollution are not given voice in most congregations, and their experience is not named in sermons or prayers. The impoverished multitudes of the world, the billions living on one or two dollars a day, are not heard or mentioned. Nor, of course, do we hear from other-than-human species. (I would love to hear stories that prove me wrong about this!)

When we do not hear -- when we have not taken the initiative to listen -- then we are oblivious to truth about God's world. When we do not listen to such witnesses, we have closed off paths of revelation about the state of God's creation, and about our broken and warped relationships with our fellow creatures. When we do not hear from a wide range of voices and experiences, then our worship and prayer is dangerously limited.

In our society, we are inundated with messages that reinforce the status quo. At every turn, we encounter the merchandising of commercial media telling us of our obligation to buy and consume. The news is filled with the endless musings of the "very serious" political commentators who reference each other and repeat the conventional wisdom. In our neighborhoods, at work, and even at church we generally hear the parochial perspectives of people who are very much like us. As a result, we are never stretched and challenged by distressing news or bold possibilities.

In a world like ours, the voice of God is likely to have a lot of distressing news and bold possibilities. The voice of God will not sound like the false prophets, the ones who promise "peace, peace when there is no peace," and who assure us that we're fine if we just go buy the latest products. Our God -- who we say has a "preferential option for the poor" -- will speak to us through the marginalized and the powerless, and so we need to seek out those who don't get airtime on the talk shows. Among all the voices, we need to practice careful discernment to sort out the true prophetic witness from the false, and to filter out distorted messages of denial and comfort.

Marjorie Proctor-Smith wrote about the dangers of an insular women's spirituality, and her words are relevant for all of us who are thoroughly steeped in our own culture. "Privileged white women risk replicating in the process and content of prayer the classist and racist practices that benefit us. All women's groups run the risk of trading religious, social, and political transformation for our personal spiritual comfort." Unless we are informed, challenged and inspired by those with different experiences, we are likely to find ourselves worshipping a god of our own making.

When we do broaden our experience, though, we can find a very different type of worship experience. Diann Neu, a founder of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, wrote, "Ecofeminist liturgies invite communities to listen to nature, to live in right relation with all creation, and to take up the cause of justice for the Earth. They offer new awareness of body, symbol, language, music, environment, the Divine, and creation consciousness." She reminds us that such attentive listening -- to others, and to parts of ourselves that we have denied -- opens us to new joy in faith.

Theologian H. Paul Santmire offers up a similar promise in "Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis". The sort of worship that he describes springs from countercultural communities, and "moves those who participate in it faithfully to hear and respond to the voices of all the voiceless creatures of God's good earth and indeed attunes them to hear the groaning of the whole creation."

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Pastors who seek to lead worship and preach sermons that are faithful and relevant must find ways to listen to challenging voices, and to bring those voices into the shared worship experience. But if the minister is the only one who empowers those voices, and if the congregation only hears that message during the Sunday morning service, then little will change. (Except, perhaps, for the firing of that rabble-rousing pastor!)

Listening for God's revelation is a task of the whole congregation that extends far beyond the hour of liturgy. The whole church must work to hear and evaluate diverse testimonies. A local church can start that process by affirming the importance, value and reality of the voices that we so seldom hear. Members of the church can be encouraged to share stories they have heard in the news, to teach about different perspectives on faith and ethics, and to raise prayers for all of creation.

In a church with faithful and relevant worship, the whole congregation will listen for contemporary revelation -- and they will listen for timely words from scripture that are rarely read. Within church programs and publications, and in daily lives of church members, the dominant messages of our society will be critiqued, and intentional efforts will be made to hear, respect and understand those who might speak the word of God for our time.

In this time when God's creation is being damaged and destroyed, the worship life of churches must be informed and shaped by careful listening to those who speak God's truth. Only when we listen carefully to the rich variety of voices can our worship can our worship fully proclaim God's praise.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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