All posts by JerryC999

The Gates of Hope is a Hard Place to Be

“It’s a hard place to be, this environmental work.”

I often hear this from the front lines of the battle.  And so it is, for all sorts of reasons. The science and the psychology are complicated, not to mention the politics. The problems loom large and progress seems small. There are all the urgent facts, with an ever present temptation to despair.  For those on the front lines of organizing and motivating groups of people, a burn-out born of a constant need to stir the anxious pot or maintain a constant cheerleading is always near at hand.

Those are hard places to be for very long.  They wear you down and wear you out.  Few people are cut out for it and fewer still thrive on it.  Those are the born cheerleaders and organizers. Most are not, however, and they know it. They know they are lovers, not fighters, and so shy away from the call to be crusader and advocate.

The same is true for communities of faith. “Creation Care” presents to them as environmental justice and stewardship and demands from them advocacy and organizing (or the funding of others to do so). But in this day of declining membership and resources, most faith communities already have a full plate advocating and organizing for their own survival. They are up to their necks in the need to fund their own future.

This too is a hard place to be for very long. It wears them down and wears them out. And so if environmental ministry is just another battle to be fought by advocates, crusaders and funders, they too will stay away. The gates of advocacy is a hard place to be.

There are, of course, good arguments from all sides for the legitimacy of their need and value of their work.  Advocacy and organizing are right responses to issues of eco-justice and stewardship, faith communities do need to survive in order to serve into the future, and everyone needs a healthy planet to have a future at all. So, it will not do to simply walk away from these hard places (although that is often what happens). For those folks who just do not have an affinity for advocacy and organizing, what authentic place can they find that still allows their presence at the table of caring, loving and responding? Is there a different place to be that, while matching different skills and temperament, yet still aligns well with the truth and urgency of environmental issues?

The Gates of Hope

There is a different hard place to be that is a different kind of hard. It is hard like advocacy is hard, because it too demands courage, persistence and heart. But it is different in its relationship to the problems and the role taken. In an article called “The Gates of Hope”, Victoria Safford writes about how we each can become visionaries:

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (our people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘Everything is gonna be all right,’ but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle — and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.

 This too is hard. Here, the problems are no smaller and the progress no quicker. The urgency of the facts remain. The sense of our small helplessness is just as acute. But the relationship to it all is different.  The problems are not to be over-powered, they are to be borne. The role too, is different. At this gate, the advocate advocates for mutual understanding and mutual change.

At this gate, the tools are different. They are the tools of grief, patience and abiding love.  They are the tools of listening and conversation. They are the tools of community making – community born by shared hope in the midst of shared suffering. At this gate, confession comes before confrontation and dialogue before demands. At this gate, listening trumps messaging. While there may be recruiting for common cause, there is no crusade against the other. While there may be confrontation, there is no enemy.

At this gate, perhaps even the hope is different. The hope lies not in the ability to organize and convince, but in the ability to foster open and honest relationship. The work is beckoning and calling, telling and asking. Abiding at this gate requires a sustained belief in the baring of souls and the sharing of pain as tools of change. In other words, hope lies less in the tools of victory (convincing, organizing, coalition building and politicking), and more in the tools of  community (being awake, being together, speaking truth, sharing pain, and persisting in love).

Active Hope

This is not to say that the gates of hope is not a place of action. It is not a place of spiritual detachment or passive acceptance. The mission at the gates of hope need not be any less active or engaged than the mission at another gate. But the quality and kind of action is different.  It is engagement, yes, but with different expectations for outcomes and different criteria of success and progress. Its hope is not tied to the success of the organizing (even though one may organize) or changes in society (even though one may advocate). Its hope is tied to kinship building with others who also want to talk about what they see and ask others what they see (even if in opposition). Its hope lies in the love shared between those of common (and of competing) hope.

This is a hard place to be. Here one must resist both cynicism and anger. Here one must stay open. Here one must control the urge to draw the line and define the tribe. But perhaps it can be a less heart hardening or life draining kind of hard. Perhaps even if one bleeds profusely here, one does not bleed to death.

The Gates of Hope (Redux)

Let’s revisit our quote from Victoria Safford, with a little annotation for illustration:

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism [technology will save us], which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense [lets change light bulbs]; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges [a pox on the house of: humans, religions, business and politics] (our people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘Everything is gonna be all right,’ [God will save us] but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, the place of truth-telling, [the problems are deep] about your own soul first of all and its condition, [I am part of the problem, I am in grief] the place of resistance and defiance, [I like my car and what it provides for me] the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; [while not optimistic, I remain hopeful] the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle [it is better to suffer for love than to avoid life] — and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see [this is being with, not against].

Perhaps this gate can open a way for those who do not have the gifts of advocacy and organizing; for those more attuned to the lover’s heart than the warrior’s heart.  Perhaps if this gate was offered as a faithful response to the cry of the earth and her creatures, more people of faith would meet us there.

Deeper Green Churches

Deeper Green Churches

This is an abstract of my full article in the Sewanee Theological Review (Fall 2014)

Despite decades of hard work, stacks of data and passionate pleas, the church seems barely moved by the injustices and spiritual disconnects the environmental crisis brings to its altars.  Green team members trot out facts and figures and host documentaries created by those from the scientific and political battle fronts. They organize the use of fair trade coffee and washable dishes in efforts to raise awareness and align behavior. But meanwhile, the sacramental and teaching life of the church remain unchanged and the results appear shallow and disconnected to those looking on.

There is some agreement that good stewardship is wise and that environmental exploitation that adversely impacts the lives of poor people should be challenged by the church’s prophetic voice. But environmental concerns continue to fail to have a deeper and more central place in the church’s life – its sacramental life of worship, holiness, fellowship, salvation and mission.

A Need for a Deeper Green

What can help move the ecological crisis from the fringe committee to the center pew and core life of the church? Wendell Berry offers some direction:

Our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy”[1]

Berry’s naming of this destruction as a “blasphemy” points a way forward for moving these issues into the heart and center of the Christian church – the worship of God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The “destruction of nature” to which Berry refers can indeed serve as a call to stewardship and justice, but there is something more.  Calling it blasphemy points to a sacred dimension of wrongness. Blasphemy points beyond material and economic assessments toward spiritual ones.  Blasphemy names more fundamental spiritual disconnects between our souls and God’s coming kingdom. Naming this destruction as a blasphemy extends to the church an invitation to a deeper repentance and a whole hearted participation in God’s unfolding work of reconciling all things to Himself (Romans 8:19-23).[2]

What the church needs are ways of seeing the salvation of all creation as the work of Christ in the world and to include it as the church’s work of being Christ in the world. This means finding ways to connect present ecological concerns to traditional church life and God’s plan of salvation. This invitation needs to become Gospel. In other words, Good News.[3]

A key is put forth in John Gatta’s book, The Transfiguration of Christ and Creation, where integrating the theme of transfiguration into the theological and liturgical life of the church would serve to:

Expand the ecological vision beyond the stewardship focus that has thus claimed almost exclusive attention among mainline churches . . . and enable her to respond in more integrally liturgical, contemplative and doxological terms, befitting her authentic charism as the church. For unless the church develops these latter gifts, she risks becoming, in her environmental witness, little more than a technically incompetent adjunct of the Sierra Club.[4]

Many clergy and other church leaders do not recognize the activity of the secular environmental movement as something “befitting the authentic charism [giftedness] of the church.”  To fire the bones of the church, the realm of ecological wellbeing needs to be expanded beyond committee actions, material calculations and life adjustments to include worship, holiness and salvation.  Core Christian doctrines, such as the trinity and redemption, need to be revisited and reclaimed so the church can expand its circle of fellowship to more fully include all creation as fellow recipients of God’s grace.

Deep Green Church Life

The real battle ground in the church, then, is not so much the science, but the bible and tradition; not economics, but faith and faithfulness. What the world needs most from the church is not so much a helping hand on the political battlefronts, but a Word from God. A deeper green invites the church to respond not only to the social issues brought to her doors through current discoveries and crises, but to revisit her role in perpetuating the attitudes, worldviews and habits that support them. A deeper green invites the church to more fully include a celebration of and concern for the whole web of creation in her worship, fellowship and prayer life.

This work truly befits the charism of the church, a work whose end is not to save the planet but to live rightly as the Creator intended and join in the proclamation of the whole gospel of salvation; a gospel which culminates in the reconciliation of the whole creation in Jesus Christ.

In kinship,

The Rev. Jerry Cappel, Ph.D.

Province IV Environmental Network Coordinator



[1] Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), 98.

[2] For a treatment of this, see David G. Horrell, The Bible and the Environment (Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2010), 75-80.

[3] Jenkins writes, “A practical Christian ethic. . .should show how the environmental crisis amounts to a crisis in the intimacies of God’s salvation.” Willis Jenkins, Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 17.

[4] John Gatta, The Transfiguration of Christ and Creation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 73.

Whole Earth Transfiguration

A Sermon Delivered for IPL Preach-In On Global Warming 2015

Text: Mark 9:2-9

I am presenting today’s homily for a special reason this morning, because this day has been marked, for hundreds of congregations of many faith traditions, as a day of special purpose – to get the church to talk about the weather.  Now, that may seem like a pretty low bar, since all across the land, on this very day and very hour, thousands and thousands of people in churches are in the process of greeting each other with, “That’s some weather we are having.  Cold enough for ya?”  And so on.

But that is not quite what these folks at Interfaith Power and Light are after. What these folks want us to talk about is not the weather, but climate. And this Sunday is what they have declared as The International Preach-in On Global Warming. What they want is to call our attention to, and challenge our faith about, is something truly new in our world, something that has never gone before.  And that new something is this:  That we humans, as creatures living upon this earth, have come to a place in history where it is dawning upon us that with our technology and choices, we actually have the ways and means to change not just our local surroundings, but the very function of the planet itself.  I suppose this awareness began with the first detonation of an atomic bomb almost 70 years ago, a power which indeed could wipe out most every living thing on the planet.  But in the last 50 years or so, a new realization has begun to dawn, and it is coming from a place we never expected.  It is not a place of visible fire and roar and violence of a nuclear explosion and act of war, but rather a quiet, invisible spreading poison that is resulting from all the good things we are trying to do in the name of progress.  We are actually changing the oceans, the soil, the food chain, the amount of sunlight that strikes the earth, the chemical makeup of our bodies, the weather patterns upon which we have built our lives and the very existence of thousands of species of God’s creatures.  And the question before us this morning of this Preach-in is this:  In what way is this a Christian issue and something to which the church should respond with its voice, heart, mind and strength?  Is there a word from God about this?  And how should we respond?  What can the church offer?

 On a Mountain Top

In our text for this Sunday, Mark tells us:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.

There are a couple of interesting things about this text.  One is that Mark makes the point that this took place six days after a particular exchange between Peter and Jesus.  A few verses earlier, Peter made his confession of confessions to Jesus and before all the disciples, “You are the Messiah.”  I am sure Peter’s confession was from the depths of his heart.  But so also was his concern for Jesus just a couple of verses later when he then “rebuked” Jesus for mentioning his impending betrayal and death, and Jesus in turn responded, “Get behind me, Satan” to his face.  The thing to notice in our text is that it is in the context of that confession and rebuke, Mark says, that Jesus took Peter, James and John up on the mountain to pray.

Now, it helps to understand that in our Jewish/Christian faith tradition, mountains are used as the symbol of revelation, insight and encounter.  And we have, here on this mountain with Jesus, Moses, who had received the 10 commandments on Mt. Sinai, and Elijah, who heard the still small voice of God in his hour of need on Mt. Horeb (The Mountain of God.)  Peter the confessor (and the Satan), along with James and John, now go to the mountain for an encounter with God and a much needed revelation.

“They appeared in glory,” Mark tells us, “And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”

The disciples needed the bigger picture – the connection between that which had gone before (Moses and Elijah) and that which would be (The greater Exodus and redemption to be achieved by Jesus).  They needed to make the link between what God did then, and what God will do next.  God was doing the next thing in Jesus, and the disciples needed to make that connection.  The Christ, the Messiah of God, the one whose salvation was to be, (the disciples would come to understand) of the entire world.  Thus the object lesson of the Mount of Transfiguration.

 Our Need for a Mountaintop Perspective

And now today, I think we live in a time in history when Jesus needs to be taking the whole church to a very high mountain that we again might encounter a revelation of the larger picture.  The church again needs to see God in a way that will dazzle us, and that will make for us connections between the past and the future, the old and the new.  We need something to help us find our place in God’s scheme of creation and redemption in our day, this day of new realities.

 The Blue Marble

I want to propose one such a mountain view.  It is a view that has already been shown to us.  I know you have seen it on book covers, in magazines – in many, many places.  You can see it at (

It was a view taken in December 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission (the last Apollo mission) from a point halfway between the Earth and the Moon  on the return trip.  What makes the image so extraordinary is that this was the only time during that 4-year series of Apollo missions when the sun was lined up almost directly behind the Moon Lander as the spacecraft was making its journey.  So the Earth, instead of being partly shrouded in darkness, appears fully illuminated and completely round, suspended in the darkness of space.  It is still the only photo we have of this and it is the most reproduced photograph in history.  It has changed the way we see world and ourselves in it, because it so clearly shows us how we all are living together on a small, beautiful blue dot in the cold darkness of space.

That is a very high mountain, indeed.  One that Peter, James and John could not possibly have imagined.  It is also far more beautiful and wholly different than the early church possibly could have imagined either.  But if Jesus were to take us to a high place to reveal God’s future to us, might that be a vantage point he would choose for the church today? And if he did, what would he want us to understand?

 An Invitation to See

Perhaps if we were brought to this mount of transfiguration, and we were to see that blue ball hanging in the darkness, we might see that there is upon us, in a way never before in history, a moment of humankind that demands from the people of God a rising up, a pulling together and an engagement of our lives of faith in a new way. And what the world needs perhaps most from the church in our day is not only political action and volunteer activity, but a Word from God about that blue marble and a model of how to live rightly upon the earth.

And I think we have in our faith life and our worship life the right and needed words to speak to the world on behalf of the earth and all living things.  I think we already have in our faith the way to know how to live rightly on this planet in this time.  But we need the vision. Let me suggest three great, Christian practices that the whole earth community needs right now:  (1) Practices of worship and reverence (in order to understand the sacredness of all things), (2) Practices holiness and right living, (in order to live a sacred life) and (3) Practices of justice and right relationships (in order to enable sacredness for others). [With acknowledgement to Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J.]

 Worship and Reverence

First, we have, as a gift to the world, the language of worship, reverence and sacredness of all things.  We have, in our Bible, a story that begins not with human beings and human commerce, but a garden.  We have, in God’s covenants with Israel, the word that tells us that God makes covenants not just with Noah and his human descendants, but with the whole created order and every living thing in it.  We have in the Psalms the words that tell us that trees can skip, and mountains can clap their hands, and the sun and moon can speak of God and bow down in worship.  The gospels tell us that God personally feeds each bird, and that it is possible for the stones to cry out with Hosannas in recognition of God presence.  We know from our scriptures that the land itself is responsive to both sin and righteousness, and that creation has the capacity for groaning in pain as it waits for us, as Paul says in Romans 8, to reveal the righteousness of God.

These things we can say, as the church, with strength and conviction, to help not only the church, but also society, and business, and governments, and schools – to see the natural world as God does – as holy, loved and good in its own right, and not just as a service to human interests.  We can help the world to attune to worship, to feel awe, and to expand the boundaries of their love to all things which are their fellow worshippers, and holy and beautiful and worthy of kindness and grace.

 Holiness and Right Living

Second, we have, in our shared life together, a millennia-long tradition of repentance, self control and holiness.  These are words and actions desperately needed in these days of endless cycles of consumption, isolation, anxiety and hurry.  These are tools that can help heal us of addictions, the distractions of noise and busyness and the disconnections underlying the emptiness of the lives of so many.  What role in our society might the church take in helping ourselves and others learn to love simplicity and virtue, to practice contentment and moderation; and to learn to prefer community over consumption and genuine peace over security through violence.  The church has these tools, and the time has well past come to apply them to our present ecological and social realities.

 Justice and Right Relations

And third – we have a long and established bent toward justice, attention to the least among us, care for the weak and the poor and the marginal.  From the very earliest Hebrew Scriptures, the Land, the animals, the strangers and the servants were all granted Sabbath rest from the very foundations of creation.  And every seventh year was to be a Sabbath year, when Israel was not to harvest anything – neither grapes, grain, nor olives.  What was the reason given in the law?  Because that was the created order of things.  And since they could afford to rest, then also the land could rest, the poor could eat, and what they leave behind, the wild animals could eat.  From the very earliest words of our Hebrew/Christian Bible, our faith has reminded the people that the earth is the Lords, and all that is in it.  From its beginning the covenant of God has always extended beyond human beings.  The Sabbath was for and about all creation.  God’s feeding and clothing has always included more than human beings.  There is nothing in our tradition that supports the right of the human animal to consume the earth at the expense of the rest of God’s created order.

It is time the church began to raise a confident voice on behalf of the new poor – the natural world which is now being hunted and exploited to extinction (including the human communities that collapse as a result).  Its time we raise our voice to extend the love of neighbor to include the whole community of life – to be neighbor to the drowning polar bear, the disappearing whooping crane, the world’s first peoples, the fading forests, the eroding soil, the acidifying oceans and all that depend upon them.

The Opportunity

The world is waking up to recognize that at the heart of the ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis.  People are beginning to make the connections between our souls and our economy; the condition of our hearts and the quality of our actions.  They are begging the church for a relevant and truthful Word from God.  The opportunity is for the church to find and deliver that Word.  In this is a great religious adventure.  We could take this mountain top vision and come down to the good earth and the people on it, to engage in our day in a way that gets us off of the sidelines and into the very heart of the struggle for God’s future and God’s will — that all creatures be fruitful and multiply, as they, like us, were originally created to be.

 May it be so