Rev. Bonnie Tarwater

July 7, 2015

June is bustin’ out all over , All over the meader and the hill , Flowers bustin’ out on bushes , And the roughen river pushes , Ev'ry little wheel that wheels beside the mill , Carousel by Rogers and Hammerstein

The last few days of June 2015, I found myself humming this tune. “That is odd,” I thought to myself. “What in heaven’s name made that obscure song pop into my head?”

It came to me in a flash:June 2015 was the month that “busted out all over” in global consciousness-raising, not only for me but for Gaia, anima mundi (the soul of the world), planet earth, or –as Pope Francis tenderly refers to her as “our Sister, our Mother.”

The nightmare that is climate change and our current ecological crisis are so horrifying that many of us have gone into denial and paralysis. Scientists who study the history of the earth tell us that we are in the sixth mass extinction of life on earth, but this one (unlike the first five mass extinctions) has not been brought on by an asteroid or other natural event; it has been brought on by us – humans. “Our sister and our mother, ”the earth, is a living, breathing organism, and she is sick with a fever called climate change that keeps rising. If the earth was a human body, or if the human family were one body, she would be in intensive care in a hospital and a chaplain would be called. Just as we watch human organs begin to fail and shut down in a dying human, we are witnessing animals and plant species become extinct daily, and millions of our brothers, fathers, sisters, and mothers suffer from disasters, poverty, and violence.

June 2015, however, brought several extraordinary caregivers to our mother’s bedside.

On June 18, 2015, many of us read Pope Francis encyclical titled “Laudato Si’ Praise be to you - On Care for Our Common Home.” It is the first encyclical on the environment in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, and it comes just in the nick of time. I have a sense of relief similar to the relief I feel when a religious person comes to pray at the bedside of a seriously sick loved one.

This encyclical is not just about the environment, it is also about people. It is a bold statement about the moral bankruptcy that enables us to put profits above the common good. In the tradition of Biblical prophets, the encyclical shouts:

... We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.

Not just the earth but our human family is sick and crying out in pain, for we are not separate. We are one body. Prophet Francis calls us to a “global ecological conversion.” He ends the encyclical with prayer. Thank you, Pope Francis. Thank you for coming just in the nick of time and praying for us, and thank you for your spiritual leadership. I will pray for you and support you in any way I can.

Crisis brings the invitation for radical consciousness-raising or a “bustin’out all over” of old ways of thinking and behaving. This new “Green Pope” is the moral, spiritual, and religious leader for 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. In theory, his message to them could lead the Catholic Church to begin immediate raising of consciousness as they work a la mass for “global ecological conversion.” There has never been an institution like the Catholic Church with its massive ability to effect change. Already Jesuit universities and high schools around the world have begun teaching about the environmental crisis. With this astoundingly passionate theological proclamation of the duty to protect God’s creation, the Green Pope has begun “bustin’ out all over” in consciousness-raising in the Catholic Church. He does not however, just address Roman Catholic bishops, or even just the laity:

Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet. … In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.

If anybody can write a letter to the seven billion human souls in our human family, knowing it will be read by a significant number of us, it is Pope Francis.

Earlier in June, a mere two thousand of us participated in “Seizing an Alternative,” the largest trans-disciplinary conference ever held on behalf of the planet. The architect of this conference was Dr. John B. Cobb, Jr., who is considered to be one of the most important North American theologians of the twentieth and twenty first centuries. It was organized by the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology. It was the tenth in the series of International Whitehead Conferences sponsored by and the International Process Network. Whitehead’s “process” philosophy provides the radical vision that shapes the work of the Center and the Network.  As if we really were one human family, people from many different backgrounds, world views, and cultures gathered in unity at the bed side of ‘our Sister and our Mother.’ This is the natural response the world over when someone in a family is sick   Sitting at this bedside calls for the unity of science and religion and of the various religious traditions.  Whitehead’s philosophy provides grounds for this unity. 

Unfortunately, our modern scientific era has often led us to go against our natural intuitive human responses.  Specialization in education for example has not fostered the academic disciplines to gather round the bedside of any of our social ills. Instead, they have stayed in their own rooms like antisocial teenagers who can’t be bothered with a sick relative.   The ill effects are countless and include the promotion of “value free” education and the inability to see the big picture. We have focused on smaller and smaller pieces of information and everyone has suffered the pain of alienation, isolation, loneliness and meaninglessness. Information is obviously not all that is needed at the bed side of sick loved ones. We need the invisible non-rational stuff that religious people represent.  We need soulful love and the wisdom and life experience elders bring.

Hosting a trans-disciplinary conference and inviting scientists and theologians, philosophers, social activist, artists and economists to come together for the sake of the environment is radical in and of itself.  As the Hebrews wandered in the desert for forty years, Moses could not get his people to stop thinking like slaves.  Similarly, for forty-five years since the first Earth Day, Cobb and his colleagues have not been able to galvanize the academic community to oppose the greed and overconsumption that are wrecking the environment.  The “value free” ideal for education leaves unchallenged the capitalist values that now shape education itself as well as the destructive culture in which it occurs.

Not only was “Seizing an Alternative” trans-disciplinary, it was international and had leaders who represented millions of people. Keynote speakers included Dr. Vandana Shiva, a Hindu, a physicist, and a major leader in the ecology movement in India; and Sheri Liao, a Chinese environmental activist.  If it is true that the Pope has the ears of 1.2 billion Catholics around the globe; and Dr. Cobb and Sheri Liao have the ears of 1.4 billion people in China; and Vandana Shiva has access to the ears of 828 million Hindus in India, perhaps we can look to former U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen from Illinois for hope as he was reported to have said: “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up.”

The Claremont conference was also the ninth in a series of conferences held annually by the Institute for Postmodern Development of China.  This is a spin-off of the Center for Process Studies and has created such interest in China that twenty-six universities there have established their own Centers for Process Studies.  The conferences are all on “Ecological Civilization” the term that has now been used for more than a decade in China to name what the Pope calls “integral ecology.”  The Chinese government is committed to the goal of ecological civilization as the pope seeks to dedicate the Roman Catholic Church to the goal of integral ecology.  More than a hundred came from China to take part in the conference.  China has been dealing with this challenge for years and may have something to teach the rest of us.  The Chinese have often found that Whitehead’s philosophy helps them renew their traditional values without blocking their appropriation of science and technology. 

When the Reverend Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected Pope, he was asked, “By what name shall you be called?” His answer was auspicious: He took Francis as his name. His words about St. Francis in the encyclical encourage mystical Christian contemplation:

Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’” Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behavior. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

The Pope was on a roll. On June 27, he invited Naomi Klein to the Vatican. Her recent book, This Changes Everything, speaks with unquestionable moral force against the evils of capitalism – as if channeling Jesus himself. (Yep, this is what got me humming “June is bustin’out all over.”)

The Pope and Klein both articulate the horrific effects of environmental degradation on the poor and the war that capitalism is waging against the earth. A secular Jewish feminist standing in solidarity with Pope Francis about the corrupt economic systems that have empowered the fossil fuel companies to destroy our planet? I am bustin’ out all over in song, not just humming!

For poor countries, the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people. At the same time, they need to acknowledge the scandalous level of consumption in some privileged sectors of their population and to combat corruption more effectively.

The Pope says, “All it takes is one good person to restore hope!” But in June 2015, I heard the voices of many good people and caretakers: Vandana Shiva, Sheri Liao, Naomi Klein, Pope Francis, Bill McKibben, John Cobb, all sharing the inconvenient truth that we are in an unprecedented global and human crisis and we have to come together in radical new ways. Comments by Shiva and McKibben, the father of the climate change movement, promoting nonviolent revolution and civil disobedience were music to my ears. But who is going to teach this non-violent revolution? Learning to love your enemies and studying non-violence and civil disobedience requires spiritual teachers that, historically, have always come from religious community. The anti-slavery and civil rights movements here in the United States and the non-violent revolution against the powers of the British Empire were religious movements. Are our Christian churches in the United States up to teaching non-violence and civil disobedience? Are we as Christians committed to the difficult work of learning to love our “inner Koch bothers?”

Frankly, as a Christian parish minister, I have been discouraged in recent years. The events of June have inspired me to recommit to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi. Something is “bustin’out all over” in me as I feel movement from paralysis to resolve and commitment.

As a feminist, I wish the Pope had addressed the ways that patriarchy, power over relationships, and the church’s history of misogyny have all contributed to our ecological crisis. We have dishonored the divine feminine in religion and in patriarchal societies for thousands of years, and this must be named and changed. What we have done to women’s bodies we have done to the earth. Pope Francis says this indirectly when he writes:

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her … we have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Is it synchronicity (two or more events with no apparent causal relationship that seem to be meaningfully related) that the ecological conference and the Pope’s encyclical occurred within days of each other? As Jesus says, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Mark 4:9)

But it does not stop there. Naomi Klein was invited to the Vatican (my personal humming begins) and soon Pope Francis will be the first Pope to address the U.S. Congress (on September 24, 2015); in December, he will be at the United Nations ecology meeting in Paris. “June is bustin’ out all over” alright! I hope and pray that this bustin’ momentum is the tipping point for the birth of a new consciousness-raising, for “a global ecological conversion.” It is past time we “seize an alternative.”

There are not words enough to express my gratitude for all who are now at the bedside of our sick sister and mother. In my experience as a minister, there is something that happens in the invisible realm when I invite a family to join hands and pray around a sick relative in a hospital room. I do not understand it, but I have experienced it many times.  Something indescribable but, powerful and important occurs. Even the loved one who is in a coma seems to know when everyone has cared enough to gather round in prayer. It is past time that we come out of our teenage self-centered rooms of isolation and gather round the bed side and pray. Perhaps someone is pregnant in our prayer circle and will give birth to a symbolic divine child for a new era – not only for a global consciousness but for a cosmic consciousness.

Of all those who have ministered at the bedside, I want especially to thank Pope Francis and Cobb, prophets and spiritual high priests of astonishing moral courage, vision, and love. For me personally, “June is bustin’ out all over” is about the joy and movement of the Holy Spirit, Pope Francis, and Cobb, who have made Christianity relevant for me again – and, I am guessing, for a few billion others of us.

I offer you and all God’s creatures the prayer attributed to St Francis of Assisi:


Make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Mother/Father, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.