Interfaith service to focus on environment

Posted April 23, 2010, at 9:20 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:40 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — An interfaith service Sunday will bring together Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and others to explore how different religions view their responsibility for Earth stewardship.

The service will be held at 7 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 120 Park St.

“As hosts and organizers of this event,” the Rev. Becky Gunn said, “we are hoping that by bringing people of various faith traditions together, we can find that common thread that will bind us together so that we can care for our Earth.”

Those most affected by climate change are the people least capable of coping with it, such as the poor and disenfranchised, she said.

“Whether we believe in the Creation stories of our faiths, we know that the Earth needs our care, our stewardship,” Gunn said. “This is a religious issue because it is more than just about recycling and carbon exchanges; this is a religious issue because it is a justice issue.”

The local event reflects the growth over the past 20 years of the cooperation and networking amongst faith groups at the national level. The National Religious Partnership for the Environment, based in Amherst, Mass., is made up of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Church of Christ and the Evangelical Environmental Network.

The Jewish view

For Jews, the proper role of human beings on the planet was laid out in Genesis 2:15 when Adam was commanded to till and to tend — “avad” and “shamar” in Hebrew — the Garden of Eden. The Hebrew word “avad” means not only to till but in a more general and powerful sense to serve or to participate in worship of the divine, according to information posted on the website for the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.

“Thus, our ‘tilling’ is more properly understood as service to God’s Earth, a service that is not only a profound responsibility but a direct and critical part of our connection with and worship of God as well,” the website said. “And , shamar, or ‘tend’ is more commonly, to guard or to watch over [what is entrusted to them].”

Barbara Goldscheider of Congregation Beth El, Bangor’s Reform synagogue, said earlier this week that at the service Sunday she would urge that action be taken immediately to reverse the negative effect humans have had on the planet.

“We seem not overly concerned,” she said, “thinking we can place a bandage on a gaping wound and believing we still have time to solve a problem that is directly affecting the planet Earth with almost a casual attitude. Do we have to wait until we’re in catastrophe mode — when it will be too late to alter events — to recognize that if we cause the Earth to be uninhabitable, nothing else matters?”

Christianity and the Earth

Environmentalists often cite Psalm 8 when discussing how Christian denominations have looked the other way as the Earth’s natural resources have been plundered by humans over the centuries. Even clergy agree with this assessment.

“Since much of Christian writing and teaching over the past 2,000 years has been strangely silent on the issues of ecology and care of the Earth,” the Rev. Elaine Hewes, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Bangor, said of her topic for Sunday, “I will push deeper than ‘official Christian teaching’ to those voices in the Christian tradition that have found God’s presence in the ‘ordinary things’ of this world.”

Since the founding of Earth Day in 1970, many denominations have urged action by individuals and governments to curb further harm to the planet.

In December 1989, Pope John Paul II said that answers to environmental destruction cannot rely solely on better management or a more rational use of the Earth’s resources. He called the environmental crisis a symptom of a deeper moral crisis.

The Rev. Seamus Griesbach will incorporate that idea into his presentation Sunday. The priest, who serves Catholic churches in the Bangor area, said he is calling his contribution, “Metanoia: The Foundation of Authentic Environmentalism.” Metanoia is a Greek word that often is translated as repentance. Greisbach, however, will use its pre-Christian meaning of changing one’s mind or heart about someone or something.

“I will share a few words about how a discussion of protecting the environment must include profoundly moral and religious considerations if it is to be authentic,” the priest said. “This is because the greatest harm to the environment is caused by human moral failures: hatred, greed and injustice, pride and individualism.

“A logical conclusion [is that] sinfulness is not only destructive of the soul, it is destructive of the environment,” Greisbach said. “But the inverse is also true: Goodness is not only good for the human species, it is good for our whole world.”

Muslims

In Islam, every right is balanced by a responsibility, according to information on www.muslimgreenteam.org, a project of the Muslim American Society. Humans don’t own the Earth, but are responsible for caring for it.

“Our purpose of creation on Earth was to worship God — and worship in Islam is everything one does,” Jenan Jondy of the Islamic Center of Maine in Orono said in a preview of her presentation. “For example, when I contemplate God’s creation of everything around me and realize these are the signs of his greatness, his perfect ability and wisdom, his mercy and compassion — this is a form of worship.”

The Earth is mentioned some 453 times in the Quran, according to Frederick M. Denny, professor emeritus of Islamic studies and history of religions at the University of Colorado. The sky and the heavens are mentioned about 320 times.

“In the end, I know God will hold me accountable for everything,” Jondy said. “All will be put on the scales and this reminds me of my daily responsibility to myself, others and my home — Earth. We are from this Earth and we will return to it. We realize that when we do not respect it, we are disrespecting the very clay we were made from.”

In an article he wrote for Yale University’s Forum on Religion and Ecology, Denny called for a “green jihad” to deal with the challenges the planet is facing.

“The color green is the most blessed of all colors for Muslims,” he said “and, [it] together with a profound sense of the value of nature as God’s perfect and most fruitful plan, provides a charter for a green movement that could become the greatest exertion yet known in Islamic history, a ‘green jihad’ appropriate for addressing the global environmental crisis.”

Buddha and the environment

“To honor the earth upon which all life depends is a crucial Buddhist practice,” said Lois Marchand, a member of the Buddhist Affinity Group at the Park Street Church.

That strong connection is illustrated in the story of Buddha’s life, in which all the most significant events occur in the countryside and are associated with trees, according to information on the website of the Friends of the Western Buddha Order. “His birth [was] at Lumbini as his mother grasped the branch of a sal tree, his early experience of states of meditative absorption beneath the rose apple tree, his enlightenment beneath the Bodhi-tree, and his [death] between twin sal trees.”

Marchand, who is speaking Sunday, said she would offer some practical advice to increase individuals’ Earth awareness using the Buddhist practices of simplicity, gratitude and generosity.

“These practices have helped me take consistent, baby steps toward healing the fragmentation of the Earth community and toward finding peace in my own life,” she said.

Understanding that religions with different beliefs and practices have similar views of Earth stewardship is one of the reasons the UU church decided to hold the service, according to Gunn.

“Every religion calls for caring for those who cannot care for themselves,” she said. “We need to respond with our mutual faith-based energies. Let us first understand the issues, find common cause, and join together to work for environmental justice.”

For information about the service, call the Unitarian Universalist Church, 947-7009.

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