Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Wisdom to Know the Difference
distributed 3/16/16 - ©2016

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Harold Palevsky, M.D., and Lorna Lynn of Wynnewood, PA, in honor of Jack Twombly. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

We are sorry to say that Jack, one of the long-standing saints of the faith-based environmental movement, is in declining health.

"Lord, help me to accept what I cannot change."

A while back, those words graced the signboard of a church that I pass on my way to work. They immediately bring to mind the more extensive "serenity prayer" used in many Alcoholics Anonymous groups: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."

The Serenity Prayer, often attributed to theological giant Reinhold Niebuhr, is grounded in pastoral and psychological wisdom. It has been a vehicle of guidance and healing for countless folk wrestling with addiction and personal crises.

It is true that there are personal battles we cannot win, broken relationships that we cannot heal single-handed, pieces of our personal and global history that have been written with indelible ink. There are things we cannot change, and acceptance of those is an essential part of being empowered to work at the changes that are possible.

But acceptance of what I cannot change always lives in tension with courage to act for change. The prayer's most essential phrase, then, is the request for wisdom.

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I saw that church sign as I was pondering a distressing list of headline news: climate change that is rocketing upward at unprecedented rates, perpetual violence in the Middle East, and political campaigns in the US that reveal -- and also stimulate -- deep fractures in our national identity and values.

The convergence of difficult news and a prayer for acceptance surfaced a long-standing intellectual and spiritual question for me, a question that hooks into the core of my work with Eco-Justice Ministries. When is the challenge too great, the cause too hard? Where do we need to come to acceptance, rather than courage? How far are we called to push in seeking difficult changes?

I pray for the courage to change my personal lifestyle -- to treat others kindly and justly (and to be stretched ever more into recognition of structural injustice and my embedded privilege), to consume less stuff, and to shift my values from personal convenience toward the good of the community. I pray for the courage to carry on even routine political advocacy in this frustrating era of partisan obstructionism and gridlock.

But, Lord, how can I take on the relentless drive of material "progress" that is destabilizing life on this planet? What can I do to turn aside the march of economic and cultural globalization? How can I make a dent in the escalating patterns of energy use that are accelerating climate change? Must I deal with those problems where change seems impossible? O God, can't I just accept "the way things are" and find a degree of serenity?

Somewhere, there is a dividing line between the things I cannot change, and the things I can. God, grant me the wisdom to know the difference.

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We are just a few days away from the beginning of Holy Week, the most profound and challenging eight days of the Christian calendar. The message of Holy Week, and the proclamation of Easter, is about the astounding possibility for change. By the power of God, even sin and death are conquered. By the grace of God, lives are transformed.

The Holy Week pilgrimage works its way to serenity, of a sort, as Jesus comes to acceptance of his death. But that path goes first through tables overturned in the temple, the shockingly humble servanthood of foot washing, agonizing prayers for discernment in the garden, and then moves to the excruciating pain of crucifixion.

As I read the story of Holy Week, I am reminded that the transition point between changeable and changeless is never in a comfortable or convenient place. The status quo, business-as-usual, is not the right place to find serenity.

The prayer for acceptance is never an excuse for an alcoholic to keep drinking. Sobriety is a change that is possible. And I know that serenity cannot be an excuse for me to easily accept my complicity in the exploitation and destruction that are entwined with modern life.

For Jesus, alone in the garden after the Last Supper, serenity came with the acceptance of his fast-approaching death. It did not remove him from the struggle, but took him onward to selfless sacrifice and prophetic witness.

Acceptance is an essential part of the mix. As I wrote a few weeks ago, one form of acceptance -- maybe better expressed as acknowledgement -- frees us from denial about hard realities. And, yes, we need to be able to accept the limits of our power to control the world. We need to accept that some strategies are ineffective, and that some things will change only through the grace and power of God.

But our quest for serenity must never lead us into tolerance and complicity when hatred, evil, injustice, exploitation and destruction are in our midst. "Courage to change the things I can" recognizes that every one of us has the ability and the obligation to be an agent of change. Each one of us can work to embody God's shalom in personal relationships, in our communities, and in the world.

In 2016, we need a great deal of wisdom to know the difference between what cannot be changed and where change is possible. As I make plans for the coming months, my prayerful discernment leads me to be involved in campaigns to keep most fossil fuels in the ground -- such as the BreakFree actions next May. I am placing the almost unimaginable transition away from fossil fuels in God's "possible" column.

Grounded in God's wisdom, we are able to see possibilities for change that go far beyond what is easy or conventional. Empowered by God, we can commit ourselves to change and action on a remarkable scale.

May our desire for serenity never be an excuse for taking the easy path. Rather, may we seek faithful wisdom that calls us toward transformative change. May wisdom inspire us and empower us in the bold struggle for peace, justice and the integrity of creation.


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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