Friday, December 14, 2012

Advent 3: Prayer and action

The Third Sunday of Advent this year brings John the Baptist exhorting the crowd to “bear fruits worthy of repentance”. (Luke 3:7-18) and the crowds asking him in return, “What then should we do?”

John talks about the changed hearts of repentant people and their actions – those “fruits worthy of repentance” – being of one piece. Virtue ethicists going back to Aristotle have said we can acquire various human virtues by making a habit of doing virtuous actions. Today we talking about “acting as if” or tell people to “fake it until you make it”; it’s the same principle. So if I want to be the sort of repentantly generous person John describes when he says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”, I begin by giving away a coat or some food even if I don’t feel as if my heart is in this. When I get in the habit of doing such things, I will find that I have acquired the virtue of generosity along the way. On the other hand, John describes these actions as the fruits or results of a change in heart, and such actions should follow naturally from a deeply changed heart. The inner state of a changed heart and the outer state of changed actions are bound together.

John exhorted the crowd to have a profound change of heart and to act in a way that reflected the interior change.  Environmental activists exhort us to action, but sometimes fail to encourage us to do the inner work that helps us to sustain the outer work of advocating for a healthy environment.

On his Inside Passages blog , Kurt Hoelting recently posted on Embracing our inner tipping points on climate. When I went through the GreenFaith Fellowship Program, Kurt was on the faculty for our retreat focused on spirit; he led us in meditation and Qi Gong, and talked to us about how important this inner work is to our external work. In the blog post, he writes that meditation practice is often assumed to be a sort of “self-improvement project, a mere tool to reduce our stress and return some sense of balance, while making no demands on us.” He asks then if there isn’t “a deeper purpose that has to do with clear seeing, with the hard work of burning off the fog of our ego-driven perceptions”.

The news about our climate in recent weeks has not been easy to process or contemplate. As 2012 nears its end, we are on track for it to be the warmest year in U.S. history. Climate change is becoming more real to us in our weather records, our drought on the Great Plains, and the huge reality check of superstorm Sandy. With our political leadership still enthralled by the fossil fuel industry and the power it exerts, and with so much at stake, the work ahead of us is difficult. Even thinking about the magnitude and implications of the problem – a necessity if we are to advocate for significant changes – is emotionally and spiritually challenging.

Kurt Hoelting asks us to look at our own “inner tipping points”. What will move us from concern to action? He asks, “What more needs to happen before we decide to take it personally? And what does taking it personally look like for each of us?”

This evening we mourn the deaths of innocent schoolchildren and some of the school staff in Newtown, Connecticut.  The senseless death of so many children is difficult for us to look at and process. Even though we didn’t know these children, we care about what happened to them and are heartbroken by it. President Obama said this afternoon that “we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” Many people are echoing this thought, saying that the time has come to quit being timid about changing things so that this sort of violence will be less common.

If we look down the road, many children will suffer and die senseless deaths from lack of food, disease, or trauma from violent storms and floods if we don’t work hard to make this a better world with a sustainable climate.  The reality of our warming world is difficult to contemplate and won’t be easy to change, but our inner work of prayer can support and sustain us as do the hard work of advocating for changes that will result in less global warming.

In the Epistle reading for the Third Sunday of Advent (Philippians 4:4-7) Paul exhorts the Philippians to pray rather than worry. When we cut through the anxiety and choose prayer, says Paul, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” When we do the inner spiritual work, effective work in the world becomes possible. 

What then should we do? Ground ourselves in prayer and commit ourselves to effective actions.