Renew a Right Spirit

by Tom Walker, preached at Earth Ministry’s 16th Annual Celebration of St. Francis: Creation-Care Sermon Contest on October 4, 2008.
Text: Psalm 51:10-12

“In the beginning” so says the Bible, “The earth was without form, and void,” empty, it was nothing, there was only darkness, and water, and brooding over the waters, there was… the wind, the “Spirit,” the breath of God (It’s all one word in Hebrew:  “ruach”).  Creation begins with God’s spirit/wind/breath brooding over the waters.

It was a perfectly obvious truth to the ancient Hebrews:  the Spirit = the wind = the breath of God.  You can see God’s invisible Spirit in the movement of the trees and the rhythm of your chest.  Your spirit is connected with God’s, as seamlessly as your breath is connected with the air around you.  It is the same.  Your breath, God’s breath, the Spirit.

This concept worked its way into the English language as well.  Respiration – breathing in and out – means literally “re-spiriting.”  In-spiration – literally “in-spiriting” – is like an intake of breath, an A-HA.  And when we breathe our last, it is ex-piration.  The spirit leaves our bodies and returns to the air, the breath of God from which it came.  For the ancient Hebrews, the invisible air that surrounds us is God’s spirit “in which we live and move and have our being.”

For many years now, clever people that we are, we have known the chemical composition of God’s spirit:  78% Nitrogen, 20% Oxygen, and 2% other stuff, including carbon dioxide, CO2, which we give off with every breath and emit from storage when we burn things:  wood, coal, gas.  If you take a million particles of atmosphere, the parts that are CO2 don’t seem like much:  380 parts per million.  Not much.  But that much is enough to change our climate.

We know from ice core samples that for the entire human history reflected in the Bible and more, roughly 10,000 years before the industrial era, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 hovered between 260 and 280 parts per million.  It is now over 380.  NASA Climatologist James Hansen published data this past year saying the world is in danger of irreversible damage as long as the CO2 level remains above 350.  To meet that target, we would need 25% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020, and 80% by 2050, which is possible, but would take urgent initiatives now.  The problem is no longer around the corner.  According to Dr. Hansen, we are already past the sustainable level of CO2.  (Dr. Hansen, by the way, warned of fast ice-sheet disintegration, and in 2007 many observers were totally shocked to see a 20% decrease in the arctic ice cap at the end of the Summer compared with previous years.  Temperature changes are twice as high at the poles as they are on average on the planet.  Greenland is losing 200 cubic kilometers of ice per year).  Research James Hansen and see what you think.

The point today is:  we have, by our industry, changed the composition of God’s spirit.  Chemically, the air, life-giving “inhale”, is becoming more like an exhale now, more CO2.  We are turning inspiration to expiration.  If we continue on our current path, the Spirit that gives life, will become the spirit bringing about our demise.  It already is for the polar bear, which is now the first species on the endangered list due to Climate Change.  Climate Change is:  us changing the Spirit in which we live and move and have our being.  The atmosphere is becoming an exhale, and like an old person breathing his or her last breath, filling with CO2, we will expire.

For now, we are globally Breathing into a bag.

In the church, when something is a crisis of faith, of ethics, of morality, we call it a “spiritual crisis.”  This is the quintessential spiritual crisis.  By our actions, we have damaged the Spirit itself.

What then shall we do?  The Psalmist has the answer, in Psalm 51: “Renew a Right Spirit.”

This is both an individual Prayer and a Collective Call:

The individual prayer is: “Renew a right Spirit within me, O God.” “Take not thy Holy Spirit away from me.”  Give me the courage, the inspiration, to change my own behavior, to take my head out of the bag and regain “consciousness”, to see how my actions are connected to the destruction of Spirit itself, and consequently Earth itself.  Create in me a clean heart that loves your spirit and the earth you have made.  Connect my spirit with yours, my every breath with your inspiration, “uphold me [on your wind] like a bird” the Psalmist says “with a willing spirit.”  Up to now, many of us have been unwilling to change.  The first task is to pray for a Right spirit, a willing spirit.  The Church calls it repentance.  Turning.

But then ultimately we cannot do this by ourselves.  The change cannot only be individual, but is also a collective Call:  Renew a Right Spirit in the World.  Clean the air.  Lower the CO2.  Pass legislation that reigns in Greed and compels innovation.  Show the world we can repent.  Lead the world in pointing the way home.  We have wandered too far.

Do it together.  Join Earth Ministry, or, or People for Puget Sound, or any group that can support you and that you can support to renew a right spirit.  Keep your church or worshipping congregation working on these things.  We are talking about the Spirit in whom we live and move and have our being, and we are destroying it.  Prayer and action.  Now.  This week.

And if we did pray and did act, do you think we would be helped?  This is the Faith question.  If we change, and take steps to renew a right spirit, would the Spirit of all creation inspire us?  Would we be renewed, confirmed, connected, focused, empowered?  Would we find the strength to do the difficult things?

This is the good news:  once we turn, repent, and take the steps to heal the Spirit around us, to renew a right spirit, that same spirit will renew us.  Halleluyah!  Inspiration is as close as your next breath!  We are surrounded by it!  We live and move and have our being in it!  It is a gift.  You don’t have to fabricate it.  All you have to do is recognize it, and receive it.

Or in the words of St. Francis:  “Start by doing what’s necessary;

then do what’s possible;

and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

In the Beginning (so says the Bible), the Earth was without form and void, and the Spirit of God was brooding over the face of the deep.  And in the End?  The last book of the Bible, Revelation, presents two contrasting visions of the future, one a dream, and one a nightmare:  one stark, burning, plagued, destroyed, desolate, and the other verdant, blooming, with a River of Life, and a Tree of Life, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  The Bible ends with two contrasting visions of the future, as if to say:  It is our choice now.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God.  Renew a right Spirit within me.  Restore to me the joy of thy healing, and uphold me [like a bird on the wing] with a willing spirit,” that we might do what is necessary, and then what is possible, until together, we are doing the impossible.