in love to your souls, from a grateful child of earth

by Brian Drayton
Lyndeborough NH, August 2, 2011

Dear Friends,

I give thanks to God for the way in which Friends are awakening to concern for the earth and for right use of resources even if we recognize that much remains to do in response to the gathering force of climate change. We see and understand, too, that many other aspects of social justice and peace are linked now to the causes, and possible responses, to climate change. We all can mourn or rage against these things, but why is it we cannot as a people make some clear witness? In sitting with this question, I have been led to write this letter to you with the hope that our spiritual witness and our environmental witness can be mutually strengthened, and become more and more integrated. In the midst of this great and confusing crisis, we have an opportunity to fully engage in social action, while also moving together towards more abundant life in the Spirit, which if we find it, will be our greatest gift to our brothers and sisters in this world.

What is a ‘spiritual challenge’? Most often, when someone names “a spiritual challenge,” they are identifying a difficulty or dilemma which confronts them (or us). But what is the exercise that is demanded of us? I feel a need to speak more concretely. After all, if I say that walking the length of the Appalachian Trail constitutes a physical challenge for me, I can say precisely what it will require of me, in my current physical condition. It constitutes also other kinds of challenges: What do I do about my job? What will I need to carry with me? What problems will it pose for my family? and so on. These are questions whose answers come out of the material and situation of my life, and almost always will be the names of tasks I must engage with, if I want to respond to the challenge I have heard, and accepted.

A spiritual challenge is one which requires us to grow, because it is hard to integrate with our prior spiritual beliefs and habits. It demands some definite change in the way we act on and interpret the world and our condition; and it may require us to seek and use spiritual, intellectual, community, or physical resources to guide and feed the growth required. If we engage with such a challenge whole-heartedly, we will know we have met it, for the time being, by the reward of peace or sense of inward reconciliation, by a sense of clarified understanding, by a removal of some fear and sense of insufficiency, and by a renewed understanding of and faithfulness to our most essential spiritual commitments.

Why is climate change a spiritual challenge? There can be more than one answer to this! Here is my answer: As an ecologist, I track the science that is pouring in from every continent. Storms are growing bigger, weather more volatile, the Arctic has warmed perhaps 10 degrees in the past 100 years, species are moving or declining, droughts are becoming more intense, the ocean is warming and becoming more acidic. Meanwhile, while many individuals are acting in response to the message of the data, political systems, which alone can effect the massive changes needed in the time available, are mostly ignoring the issue, or at best making token progress (as measured against the speed and size of the climatic changes happening). As a result, the world has entered a time that will be increasingly miserable, first in the poor areas, then across the globe. My grandchildren will see humans struggling in an impoverished world, with consequences unfolding for societies, economies, cultures, governments, and families.

To state this picture in other terms, the challenge is desolation. There is grief, and alarm, at the loss of much that is beautiful and valuable in itself, and at the consequent increase of suffering that will accrue to our ever-more-numerous human family. The changes we have set in motion will take decades to fully unfold, and it will be centuries before a new equilibrium is reached. At the time I am writing this, even if dramatic measures are taken in the next 5 years, we will only be able to somewhat soften the blows that are coming. The temptations to self-preservation at all costs, to competition and exclusiveness, will only rise, because these are the most natural responses to crises that are already under way, and indeed accelerating. Moreover, our political systems by and large have developed in such a way that they are now best suited to serve a few powerful interests, rather than the common good.

Beyond the invitation to anger and despair that the science news brings daily, I have therefore found myself losing illusions that, I realize, have been sources of hope, but which cannot any longer be relied upon. Some of my hope has been placed in social structures, such as government or other political agencies, which can enforce or implement large-scale social change of certain kinds. It is increasingly likely that the major social structures will not respond in time to prevent protracted climate disruption. Some of my hope has been wedded to the idea of progress and reform. God’s will is peace and justice, abundance, agape, and creation—but I no longer see how this translates to “progress” as Americans and optimists have usually meant it. Finally, I have placed stock in knowing, being able to comprehend not only my personal dilemmas, but also the trends in which I am embedded. And I must admit that the hope that I have in knowing really reflects my deep desire to have control over my life, for my well-being and that of those I love.

We have not confronted the spiritual challenges of climate change until we recognize that some of our grounds for hopefulness are false, and that we need again to ask where the Holy Spirit and the Gospel story (including its later, Quaker chapters in some of which we are appearing right now) can be found in the midst of it all. At such a time, indeed, we are challenged to bring our grief and our need before the Living God. Many Friends have experienced surprising grace when driven to such an extremity, seeing that many of their props and resources were unreliable—”When all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do…” We cannot tell God what to do, but we can know some things about how God moves among us.

When false hopes are removed, true hope can be discovered. It may be that our calling as a people is to be intentional about descending into the depths as we encounter them, and then waiting there for the power to call out in thanksgiving and in a hope that lives without any illusion of control. If Friends as a people could testify first and foremost to the Spirit from which we learn love, and the grace of a thankful heart, then indeed we can speak both power and love to our frightened, angry, disoriented time. The speaking will come with power as it comes from a life empowered by the work of the Holy Spirit in and through us, and as we open to true concerns, our work will bring consolation, as love carries us past fear, even in calamitous times.

True concern. In the past few years, we New England Friends have sought hard to bring the resources of our yearly meeting to bear upon our sense of insufficient faithfulness. The frustration and confusion that have often resulted from this search suggest that we are not looking in the right places for the way forward, and that we may not have gotten clear, each of us in our own hearts, about what the roots of our urge for action may be. We have not yet been drawn into the complex, empowering, and risky condition of concern — of seeing how a particular person, issue, place, or need is for us an essential and unavoidable next stage of our spiritual life. We may see that something is cause for alarm or regret or outrage, but it may remain an outward threat only, until by the action of the Spirit some link of service and necessity is forged. Until that gap is closed, my activism will not reach to my core, nor be fed from the divine life. I may be under preparation, but I am not yet sent!

A concern is, in a real sense, a spiritual challenge, and so it is particular, or makes particular demands, on each of us, even if we feel the concern to be widely shared. In fact, for each of us, the shared concern is really unique, because it confronts each of us with the limits, uncertainties, and temptations that are ours alone; and however supported by our F(f)riends, the inward response to the challenge must take the form of inward change in each individual.

True resources. Friends figured out long ago that if we are really to take seriously the realization that “Christ has come to teach his people himself,” so that it is the foundation of our worship, our business practice, and our daily personal life, we must remain teachable and inwardly available. Early on, we discovered or were led into practices that can enable us to grow spiritually, within our communities, whether under the challenges of our daily life, or under more unusual ones (and these are not unrelated, since our faithfulness in small things prepares us for faithfulness in greater ones, including in outward action and witness). These are simple, but not easy:

  1. Watchfulness. Wait, wait, and wait again, for understanding, for an opening path, and for power to follow it. But we must beware, because this can be done in a hardened, hasty, individualistic mindset. If we are to live with integrity the Gospel life we are called to, our waiting must also probe this central question: Can I feel how this leading, at its base, is one more outflowing of God’s love? Can I see, at least dimly, how that love sharpens and corrects my view of the people and things I am called towards? If we wait to feel where the current of love flows, before we speak (in meeting or outside it) or act, the resulting integration of our actions with the Light will be rewarded in unexpected ways.
  2. Prompt obedience. Friends from the beginning recognized that the outward fruits of inward life are cultivated by our accepting the Light we’re given, and acting on it in the smallest matters. We must be wary of the temptation to postpone action until something “really worth our effort” comes along. If we wait deeply enough, we will find that our anxiety about impact will be lifted from us, because we can see that the fundamental message is the love of God as we can embody it, and this is at work in many lives and many places. “To those who have, more shall be given.” (Matthew 13:12)
  3. Suffering, or, growth pangs. Taking the step that is given to us, and not outrunning our Guide, we will find that our inward process, now incarnated in our action, has outward consequences. These can include reactions (in ourselves or others) which are unpleasant and discouraging; “suffering” can take many forms visible and invisible, more or less understandable to others, and tolerable or intolerable to one’s self. These may range from self-doubts and questioning, to puzzlement or ridicule within our community, to inconvenience and complications in our outward affairs, to much more serious threats or pains. These sufferings may weigh on us and perplex, even if we are at the same time able to keep in touch with the joy that is rising as we move forward in a true leading.

    We need to listen to questions, to recognize that it is possible we may be wrong, to stay teachable: but the consequences of our earnest and loving attempts to be faithful will be both lesson and reward. Our friends can help us sort through it all, and that may be part of the nourishment that comes: but each of us bears our own cuts and bruises, and the healing in the end comes from within.

  4. Proclamation and thanksgiving. What a gift it is, when someone tells us how their concern arose, how they learned about it, prepared for it, what it took to feel how it was love at work, what journey they were taken on (however humble)! We need that witness more than any other, because it kindles the life in us, and gives us the hope that comes from truth enacted. We need to help each other give thanks for any step forward upon this way. We need to help each other practice telling the story—the whole story, from inside out and outside in. If you act on a true concern, in love, you have changed the world in at least two ways: you have done your task, but you also had to be changed to be best able to do it—just as Penn wrote about the First Publishers, “They were changed men themselves, before they went about to change others.”

And it is also important that we encourage and nurture gifts of proclamation and teaching, a servant ministry that invites and urges to more abundant life, that reflects the life at work in us all, and that helps us do the work each of us is called to, which is unique and precious.

Oh, Friends, remember, it’s a miracle that we see unfolding when any of us feels a true concern, however small the motion! This is God at work, the waters of life flowing, the Seed stirring and strengthening as we give it hospitality. It is to us, and through us, for our friends and in some measure for the sweet, inexhaustible Life that seeks to flow through all, and has its witness everywhere in the earth and in every heart — Can we see it? Do we long for it? It comes often as just a morsel, but receiving it, and feeling the gift and the communion of it, we will be fed, and have more than enough to share and share in turn, till no one can say who started the feast, but each gives thanks to the Fountain of Miracles, as the birds, the air, the green leaf, and the spiritual bread sufficient for the day. Our vocation is towards joy, and fullness of life — Oh! Taste and see that the Lord is good!

Brian is a member of Souhegan Preparative Meeting in New England YM. He has written several books on Quakerism including On Living with a Concern for Gospel Ministry  and A Language for the Inward Landscape: Wisdom from the Quaker Movement.