Ecology, Sermon

our host, the earth: a sermon

I had the honor of sharing my sermon with a church plant I’ve been part of for the last few months in NYC. 

Psalm 93 
God rules justly, robed in beautiful majesty;
the Mighty One is robed, girded with strength.
God has established the world; it shall never be moved;
your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.
The floods have lifted up, O God,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.
More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters,
more majestic than the waves of the sea,
majestic on high is the Lord!
Your decrees are very sure;
holiness befits your house,
O Lord, forevermore.

Revelation 12:13-17 
So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the Earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the Earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon was angry with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.

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Please pray with me: O God, the oceans are rising, during our lifetime entire species of animals have become extinct, and climate refugees increase every year. O God, our world is burning, may you burn brighter. Amen.

Today’s subject on ecology and environmentalism is close to my heart. Too many times though I’ve watched preachers or speakers take over lecterns or pulpits to talk about plenty of subjects that they do not know anything about! I myself am no climate scientist but have a few friends in the fields of geology and climate science, that I’ve bounced what I’m going to share about with them.

As for me a few my credentials, within the Presbyterian world last Spring I planned a  weekend retreat for Young Presbys. Our theme was intersectional environmentalism. As well, I’m part of Fossil Free PC(USA) which encourages the denomination to divest from fossil fuels. It has unfortunately failed the last two General Assemblies, but we will not give up!

Last but not least I got into this work after I spent two weeks in Iraqi Kurdistan on a peace delegation with Christian Peacemaker Teams and Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. We heard stories from villages across Iraqi Kurdistan who do not have clean water or fertile land to farm because oil companies extract crude oil using toxic chemicals. A brief historical side note, Saddam Hussein hated the Kurds and would not allow oil companies to enter Iraqi Kurdistan. This was to make sure that their economy would suffer. It wasn’t until US troops invaded the country in 2003 with Operation Iraqi Freedom that Iraqi Kurds tasted the abundance of black gold. Oil companies started to enter villages promising hospitals, schools, and jobs, yet sadly, none of it came about. More than just their land and water being toxic, their roads have destroyed by tank trucks carrying oil back and forth and these companies did not hire anyone from IK. One other note, in 2011, one year after the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the disgraced CEO of BP, Tony Hayward created another oil company Genel Energy that has been in IK ever since. It’s as if he thought, where’s the next place, people, and creatures I can exploit…

Ok so those are some of my more recent environmental credentials. Yet, my childhood was full of nature adventures. I was born and raised in Western Maryland and just went back for Thanksgiving with my family. Western Maryland is a thin part of state and the Appalachian Mountains go through it. In a way I grew up hickish, but because of the internet and my music preferences I began to dissociate myself with the culture in my teens. Yet when I was a child, I loved playing in our small creek, (or as I used to call it a crick) next to our house. There I made friends with crayfish, worms, turtles, and dragonflies. I loved that area so much that every summer I used our farming tools to cut down the thorn bushes next to the creek. Looking back on it, I think I wanted to help clean up “the house” of my creature friends. Sadly, since then, every time I go back to the creek, the thorn bushes have taken over.

Now this seems like a good segue into stewardship, to care for our common home. But it’s too dang easy to do that. Honestly, I’m tired of those kinds of conversations. Stewardship seems to focus on the individual instead of the entire system. Yes, yes, please keep up the work of reducing, reusing, and recycling. And as my grandmother taught me, “Think about your need of an item three times, before you purchase it.” Or maybe today it should be updated to say something about not going on shopping apps late at night to tiredly or drunkenly order items.

Stewardship, for me, portrays the same idea that I get from servant leadership. Both believe that because one person changes their actions to be more conscience of how they treat the Earth or one another that things will change. Just because you can be friends with your boss now that they practice servant leadership doesn’t mean that the system is not still inherently oppressive. Rather in a way both of these ideas point to feeling good about yourself. Not that you shouldn’t, but really that’s not the life Christ has called us to.

One other small rabbit hole about stewardship: we have come to think of ourselves as consumers and others treat us as so. Nowadays stewardship seems to be tied to consumerism. I’m sure you remember after that wretched day on 9/11. To comfort US citizens, President Bush said to continue shopping or to even go to Disneyland. In other words, live care-free and keeping buying! But Thank God, we are more than consumers.
We are called by God to be a spirit empowered community!
We are called to follow a Jesus who taught abundance, not scarcity! We are called to be in the Way of injustice and to lift up love! Thanks be!
So if I’m not going to speak our ethical and moral obligation to one another and to God, what am I going to speak on? Interdependence, of course.
These past two weeks we saw a full display of environmental interdependence.

At the beginning of last week, we learned that the Mid Atlantic experienced smoke from California’s wildfires. Even if we think that we are exempt from this tragedy, think again.
Nearly 14,000 homes were destroyed
84 people have died, so far
605 people are still missing
And around 52,000 people have been displaced.
May God be with them!

On Thanksgiving, after eating my meal, I was scrolling through Twitter, and saw Mari Copeny’s tweet “Went through a 40 pack of water cooking Thanksgiving Dinner.” Flint, MI still does not have clean water.

Then on Black Friday, the Fourth National Climate Assessment was released. President George HW Bush signed The Global Change Research Act of 1990 which mandates that the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) deliver a report to Congress and the President no less than every four years. This Administration purposely posted the fourth report on Black Friday in hopes that it would be buried by other news.

This report is stark, showing how “Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth.”
When I listened to NPR interview one of the scientists on this project, he said, “It’s no longer about how climate change will affect our children or grandchildren. It’s happening now.” And to that I say God help us all.

And a little more news about Black Friday, much shopping was done. One shopper was shot and two were stabbed in disputes over items. This is disturbing, but sadly not surprising.

Today’s passages seem to be conversation partners about the Earth.
In Psalm 93, we hear of a God who is majestic and in control. Today in the Christian Calendar is Reign of Christ Sunday, so it makes sense why this passage would be chosen.

The middle section reads:
“God has established the world;
it shall never be moved;

your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.
The floods have lifted up, O God,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.”

In the ancient worlds of Mesopotamia and Canaan, divine kingship was established by victory over the sea and the deep. Our passage speaks of a God who not only controls the world and waters, but that they are roaring and lifting up their voice to God.

I think it’s beautiful to bless God’s majesty, but I think this passage is referring to a bit more. The water speaks, shows kindness and love, and even praises the Creator. As a child I think I was more in tune with that. In tune with how at my parent’s flower shop, dish gardens could liven up when I’d sing to them, with how the clayfish stopped pinching me after they got to know me after a while, how the tree I planted on Arbor Day in the mid 90’s grew and grew on the side of my hill because I would visit with it every day. 
The seas and Earth worship God. Are we paying attention or are our headphones blocking out such adoration?

Our second passage from Revelation is a doozy. I remember reading it for the first time in seminary in a class dedicated to Revelation and being blown away.

Let me give you a little context. When we think about Christmas narratives, we often head to Matthew or Luke for the story of Jesus being born in Bethlehem. The writer of Revelation though has a different idea. A cosmic woman, who we can assume is a Mary-like figure is in heaven and she’s pregnant. She starts to go into labor and the dragon, Satan, is also in heaven waiting for the baby to be born. This starts Revelation 12. Cosmic Woman and Dr. Dragon. This sounds like a band that I’d go watch. Anyway, as she births the male child, he is snatched away by an angel and taken to God’s throne. A war then breaks out in heaven. The cosmic woman heads to Earth for refuge. And here’s where our verses begin. 

Every time I read this, I am in awe. The cosmic woman is nourished in the wilderness. One note about the wilderness in books attributed to John. The wilderness functions as a place of witness (John 1:23), salvific healing (3:14), provision (6:31, 49), and protection (11:54). All of these are present in this passage. The cosmic women bears witness to God’s glory and protection, by resting in a place God had prepared, and she’s offered protection.

The Earth fights for the woman. Often when we read Scripture or think generally about the Earth, it’s always passive or reactive. We have more intense hurricanes because of climate change. The Earth is not doing it; rather we have created this situation.

Yet it’s time for us to think of the Earth, not as only creation, but as a creature. A creature that speaks, reacts, fights, and heals.

Our lives are intertwined with the Earth, whether we know it or not. The Earth is not just our home, but in a way our host. The Earth has everything that we need to survive and thrive.

I was listening to the rather strange philosopher Slavoj Zizek earlier this week. He’s written tons on ideology and was sharing about when he debates with others on environmental issues. He said that all they do is quote disparaging facts to him. Then, he says something I’ve never him his say before, “The function of Ideology is no longer to paint an idealized image, like that the world is not as bad as we think or that things can get better. Nor is ideology even used to oppress much, state power already does that. Today ideology kills hope.” May we not allow our hope to be killed by being overwhelmed by facts and figures.

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All sermons are fragments. Pieces of a puzzle in a box without a picture. This certainly stands true for my sermon. Out of this mess though I have a few conclusions:

I. Be vigilant
As I said earlier keep up with reduce, reuse, and recycle. Try not to buy as much. Discern each purchase.

II. Be proactive
The Historian Howard Zinn was right. It’s not always the lawmakers who change the world, but it’s those who take to the streets.
He said, “We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

III. Promote the commons
I took a train from my parents’ house back to Philly yesterday. A trip that I’ve made many times, but during my layover in DC’s Union Station, I noticed that the benches I used to sit on were all gone. The only places to sit were ones where I had to buy a meal or coffee. We need to create spaces where one does not need to buy anything! Let’s not privatize any more of the world.

IV. Fight back
Communities of color are on the frontlines of climate change. Need I remind you of New Orleans, Puerto Rico, the droughts in Somalia and other countries in Africa. We must amplify their stories and struggles. Climate change refugees have been created because of us. May we open our arms wide in hospitality and love.

As we continue to do our part to struggle against this Administration’s lack of compassion. May we remember that God always stands on the side of the poor and oppressed, that means the Earth too. May we stand as a community with God, no matter the risk. Amen.

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#BlackLivesMatter, Beliefs, Ecology, Justice

salvation: theology and theopoetry

Someone gave me some insight once in how to read theology: theologians only answer the questions asked. Augustine answered certain questions that we’re not asking today. The same is true for Death of God theologians and many contemporary theologians do not incorporate #BlackLivesMatter or push against transphobia in their theologies.

So why do we hold onto an outdated salvation narrative, when clearly we are not asking these same questions?

Jesus would have not understood this way of thinking about salvation.

Jesus would have not understood this way of thinking about salvation.

As Americans, we have been trained to hear a particular salvation story. God created the universe, placed people in a Garden, and had a close relationship with them. They sin by not obeying God and are cast out of the Garden and into the world, away from God. Because of them, the cosmos became tainted with sin and humanity totally deprived. Consequently, we cannot do anything good, unless God does it through us. To rescue us from this plight, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ and dies on a cross for our sins. And with this action, God’s anger is appeased and God loves us once again. If we recognize that Christ died for us, then we are forgiven, and will live with God forever after we die.

This is a nice logical framework, if one can call it that.

When church folk start to question this narrative, they either give up Christianity or are kicked out of the church. This happened to many of my friends in undergrad.

There are theopoets, like Catherine Keller, who present us with a possible alternative formulation: Jesus as a Parable and Deconstructor. Jesus does not allow our logic to be the final and last word, but disrupts theo-logic with parables and stories that reset our way of thinking, again and again. The common salvation narrative that I described above is not found on the lips of Jesus. Jesus preached that the basileia (commonwealth or kin-dom) of God was crashing to Earth and we should be ready. Not that Adam and Eve were the first sinners or that he would die on a cross to appease the FATHER’s anger.

Dr. Keller also writes elsewhere in On the Mystery, that salvation is rooted in the word ‘salve’ meaning ‘an ointment to promote healing’ or to ‘soothe.’ If understood like this, salvation is not found away from the world, but in it. Salvation happens when relationships are mended, when prisoners are released, and racism eradicated.

Christ’s life was full of salvation moments, not just his death and resurrection.

Ethiopian Jesus healing

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Beliefs, Christainity, Ecology, Liberation Theology

theologically imagining via comic books

Typically comic books and theology sound odd together in conversation. They represent two separate camps; one’s stationed beyond the trees in the land of pop-culture and superheroes. While the other is found amongst the cloud-covered mountains. And never the twain shall meet. This summer I sunk my teeth deep into the comic book cosmos. And after some exploration, I understand comic writers, artists, and producers as theologians. Comic books construct theology with intricate eschatologies, varying cosmologies, and present us with new paradigms to fathom the divine.

But before I dive into some detail about comics, I must confess I am not a fan of the comic philistines, Marvel and DC Comics*. Their ontological and eschatological perception is shallow, to say the least. Rather, I hone in on comic publishers, which allow for creator ownership, i.e. Image, Dark Horse, and Boom!. These publishers allow for artists and writers to go their own creative direction. This also allows for variance in styles, characters, and universes, unlike Marvel and DC.

SagaMy absolute favorite series is Image Comics’ Saga. It takes place during a galactic war and recounts the story of a little mixed-breed girl (a horned head and a wingéd back) named Hazel and her family. Her parents, Alana, who is part of the wingéd colonizer planet, fell in love with Marko,  a colonized magical horned moonie.** The first issue, Alana, beautifully, bearing all, gives birth to Hazel. And thus begins the journey of this sci-fi Romeo and Juliet hiding from their respective planetpeoples. Along the way, we meet bounty hunters, a planet of sex-workers, and creatures with computer monitor as heads. This is certainly not your parent’s comic book.

At the 2014 San Diego Comic Con, Saga not only won 3 Eisner awards, which is the highest achievement in the comic book world, but they hosted a stellar panel. The writer Brian Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples discussed how Saga began. During Brian’s first discussion with Fiona about the characters, he objected to another redhead in space claiming there are just too many in science fiction. Fiona replied by asking why do the characters need to be white? The outcome of that conversation is the current series with the majority of the cast with darker skin and an array of hair and body types. For Fiona, the future is not made up of only white people like such recent sci-fi films as Lucy or Her portray. Rather, the future, like the present, is full of many diverse populations, creatures, and hopes.

MoltmannSimilarly, Jürgen Moltmann claimed in his magnum opus, Theology of Hope, “Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present” (pg. 16). Or simply put, “Who controls the past now, controls the future. Who controls the present now, controls the past,” as sung by Rage Against the Machine. The ways in which we construct our eschatology determines how we treat others and the Earth now.

For instance, premillennial dispensationalists believe God will one day rapture those who declare Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, and for the next seven years God will torture those left behind and torch the Earth. For them, if God is already going to destroy the Earth, then they should not be concerned about her fate today. Sadly, many congresspersons and businesses have jumped on board secularizing and Americanizing this idea allowing them to destroy our Earth. But we cannot give up hope!

Because science fiction, normally, orients future-forward, they have the opportunity to breathe new life and vision. The question for religious institutions, then, is how can we understand a beautiful future and participate in that future now? And this is where comics can lend a hand. Comic artists and writers can guide us in broadening our theological imagination.

Here are a few tips for theologically imagining:

There are no theological crossing guards!

In the Christian Scriptures we read “with God all things are possible.” And this phrase is found in different contexts throughout the Gospels (Matt 19:26, Luke 1:37, Mark 10:27) that it can be a broad framework for how it was being used. Could this mean that all things are possible with God including disrupting the laws of physics? Possibly. Or it could also mean a world where no one is hungry or has to live on the streets? I sure do hope so. Unfortunately, our religious institutions have not stretched their theological imagination. Many of the same cataphatic dogmas have not changed for centuries. Yet, no one is stopping us from crossing into new theological territory.

Humans are part of creation, not the end of all creation.

Genesis 1 beautifully describes that when God had finished creating, God saw that all of creation was very good. This does not mean that it was humanity that made creation especially good, rather its fullness made it very good. This breaks a crack in our normalized anthropocentric theology and helps us to imagine and include non-humans. We can start to imagine new theologies of tigers, otters, and iguanas. We can theologize with clouds, volcanoes, and bumblebees. Or even soaring in the Milky Way and beyond with planetary theologies of galaxies, black holes, and quarks. No-thing is the limit!

We are shaped by our surroundings, and shape our surroundings.

Our mere presence changes group dynamics, neighborhoods, churches, and the room. This gives us the chance to inspire new thoughts, to sing new songs, and change ourselves and the world for the better. Although, we need be conscious in our participation in creating these spaces within ourselves for transformation.

Better futures could arise with dialogue between comic books artists/writers and theologians.

I’m ready!

*There are exceptions including Ms. Marvel (2014) and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
**He lives on a moon colony adjacent to the colonizing planet.

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Anti-Capitalism, Beliefs, Christainity, Ecology

hoping against hope: god, weak-bodies, and Pentecost

“Hoping against hope … [Abraham] did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” (Romans 4:18a, 19 NRSV)

Few body theologians consider Paul’s contribution to a theology of the body. When surveying the Pauline corpus, several texts prominently construct a theological anthropology focused on the body. In Paul’s letter to Galatia, he informs believers of three gospels, “the circumcised,” “the foreskin,”(2:7) and a “contrarian gospel” (1:8). In this way, Paul associates the Gospel message with the body–whether one is a circumcised Jew who still practices the Law or a Gentile believer following Christ–these Gospels cannot be separated from one’s body. From bodies, communities develop, and with it, a new ethics of eating and relating to neighbors. Bodies must be the genesis of any theology.

Controlling bodies is fundamental to all Empires. These dominant forces enslave bodies, transplant bodies, and control weak-bodies through the use of militarized strong-bodies. While the Romans were Empire-building, propagandists wrote the Priene Inscription concerning Caesar Augustus. The inscription transcends body-talk and depicts a hope that the Emperor has brought to all people of the Empire. It commends Augustus for putting an end to war and bringing order to chaos. Moreover, it explains that all people shall find hope in Caesar Augustus, even after his death. Roman imperial theology supported Caesar in making himself a god through stealing bodies to conquer the world.

In this context, Paul, a missionary to the Gentiles, wrote to the early followers of Christ in Rome. In a particular re-working of the Abrahamic narrative in Genesis 18, Paul discusses a hope beyond hope found in Abraham’s faith. In the Hebrew text, when the mysterious men told Abraham that Sarah would conceive a child (Gen. 18:10), Sarah laughs at the prospects of bearing a child at her old age (18:12). When Paul describes the scenario, Abraham’s body is first introduced. Although, his body was “as good as dead,” his body was not yet rotting, life was ready to spring forth, and his faith was strong.

In this way, Paul points against and beyond Augustus’ “hope.” God works with/in/through the weak-bodied and marginalized. Paul used the example of Abraham for his readers to embrace a theology of weak-bodies. If even the founder of their faith trusted in God’s promise, why can’t the communities who find themselves on the margins of the Empire, find the same kind of hope? This is in complete contrast to the hope perpetuated by the Roman Empire, which was founded on the false pretenses that Caesar Augustus created peace and order. With this false narrative in mind, readers and hearers of the epistle were encouraged to hope against the very hope they were told to believe in and to dismantle the Roman Empire’s theology, for a theology in which God is on the side of the downtrodden.

Transplanting the letter to the Romans into our context, followers of Christ ‘hope against hope’ in the face of global capitalism and amidst ecological crisis. Recently, new studies report on the dire health of the Earth. The future looks worrisome for the creatures of Earth because of humanity’s overconsumption of natural resources and pollution. Over the past twenty years, the effects of global warming have landed on the shores of the Third World with more famines, tsunamis, and hurricanes. These “acts of God” were caused by the Rich’s idolatrous god, Almighty Capitalism. But how can the Christ community keep “hoping against hope” when the future’s only horizon consists of the globalization metanarrative? Since we are entrenched in the wiles of capitalist ideology, where could there be new breakthroughs of alternative economics, politics, and social structures?

The answer to these questions, I believe, is found within this verse. When faced with overwhelming devastation, we must hold onto a hope that shatters beyond all hope. We must belong to communities that strive for alternatives to the metanarratives that cast a long shadow across the world. Since God sides and works through weak-bodies, we too must side with the abused, the neglected, those without a voice, and the downtrodden. God’s power  pulsates hope through weakness throughout the world.

Lastly, and most important for celebrating Pentecost, it was the weak-bodies who uttered the radical grace found in the Gospel. It was not the most powerful! The listeners in the narrative even made fun of the social location of the tongue-speakers and believed they were drunk. After all, isn’t the bible full of rejects, losers, and weak-bodies? Even when characters gain power, they use it for the wrong reasons, e.g. David and Solomon. It’s not in the wealthy-plump-bodies that we find salvation, for one day they will be hungry (Luke 6:25).

God chose (and chooses) what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to no-thing things that are (1 Cor. 1:28).

The Holy Spirit Arrives

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Christainity, Ecology, Justice, Scripture

“remember you are compost, and to compost you shall return”: ecotheology and ash wednesday

My theology professor asked the class, “Will composting be necessary in the new heavens and new earth?” My hand shot up immediately and I answered with an enthusiastic “Yes!” Of course, I knew that compost was made of rotting, decomposing earthy matter. Yet, at the same time, I believed composting to be an integral part of God’s realm because it brings forth life out of rotting matter. The professor seemed to agree with me, but my peers were not impressed. For them, life eternal required no work, rather full praise toward God and God’s goodness.

We first find compost in Genesis 2, when God plants a garden on the east side of Eden and creates humanity. As well, God causes animals, trees, and shrubs to be birthed from this same ground. In this second creation narrative, humans work with the ground and care for the garden. Composting was involved in their very practice of creation-care. They didn’t have the means to develop landfills, or even the desire for non-recyclable plastic products. Instead, they gave back to Earth what they couldn’t use and the Earth reused it for something new.

Compost occupies an in-between stage. Sort of how plasma is not necessarily a solid or a liquid; or even Derrida’s late obsession with ghosts, understanding them as not quite human and not quite rotting flesh. Without compost, life would not subsist. In a sense, everything is compost. Our very ontology is in-betweenness. Though this is not the same as when preachers talk about the “dash on your gravestone.” Our in-betweenness is rather much more. Our bodies, along with the world, are constantly changing, either through the shedding of our skin, or dying cells, or having organs taken out. We are never static creatures, just like compost.

In Revelation, we read of the new earth, where one can see signs of composting. The River of Life flows through the middle of the New Jerusalem and on one side is the Tree of Life, which “provides healing for the nations” (22:2). “Healing” in this passage is in the present and continuous sense. In other words, even with everything renewed, everything is not yet fully healed or whole. Thus, could we not imagine that at the bottom of the Tree of Life, us partaking of food and composting it for new life, healing, and wholeness? With this reasoning, the New Jerusalem will not have landfills. What a beautiful vision of God’s realm!

On Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent, we recognize our faults, our sins, and those regretful acts we commit. We walk to the front of the church and receive a sign of our sinfulness with an ashed compost cross on our foreheads. Our bodies will become compost again after our death, at least until the resurrection. Yet, we should recognize our in-betweenness as hopeful. As Paul writes in Romans about Abraham on the resurrection, that he was and we are “hoping against hope” (4:18). Within us is the power of transformation. We have the capability to bring forth goodness, love, and hope.

Living into our compostable lives, let us make the most use of our in-betweenness for positive change in our relationships, neighborhoods, and world.

Composting

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