Image: Photograph by Dr Miriam Pepper.

‘Life, breath – everything’

Dr Miriam Pepper
Forest Sunday, Season of Creation A
Acts 17:22-28; John 3:1-16

Last Sunday morning, amidst regenerating forest on Gumbaynggirr Country (Mid North Coast), I awoke to a cacophony of bird calls, growing light, the condensation gathering on my tent.

I was on a forest protection pilgrimage, together with others from the Uniting Church’s Forest Advocacy Ministry.

Walking through the intact forests of the Mid North Coast, it is possible to forget about the “Anthropocene” – our era in which human influences have so profoundly disrupted the functioning of the Earth system that it is becoming unstable.

Walking through intact forests, senses alive to all around us, I experienced myself as merely one part of the diversity of life.

“The God who made the world and all that is in it … is the One who gives everyone life, breath – everything.” (Acts 17:24-25)

The Season of Creation is observed throughout September in many places across the world. Some churches, as we do at South Sydney, follow a set of themes on a three-year cycle. This year we celebrate the Spirit in Creation. The Spirit, also Wind or Breath, breathes life into creation, suffers with creation and renews creation: Forest, Land, Wilderness/Outback and Rivers.

It is no accident that the Spirit series starts with forests. Forests are arks of biological diversity and are critical to maintaining the Earth’s life support systems. They regulate the climate, store carbon, prevent erosion, lessen flooding, and preserve water quality. They are also the lungs of the earth. Their outbreath is our inbreath, their inbreath our outbreath.

On our pilgrimage through Pine Creek Forest, which is scheduled for logging in coming months, we stopped to reflect as follows: “Breathe in. Remember that you are one of many creatures in this place who draw breath. Give thanks for the oxygen and the plants who produce it. Give thanks for the opportunity to breathe out the carbon dioxide which they need. For simply being part of this circle of life.”

Walking through intact forests, senses alive, it is possible to grow in love for the forests. Love that is deeper than naïve romanticism – there are snakes, ticks and leeches, exposure risks, it is possible to be injured or lost, to disappear. Love that leads citizen scientists to do their own surveys to gather the evidence (tree diameters, koala sightings) that is needed to protect critical habitat. Love that leads some to grapple, again and again, with the slippery processes of the state-owned Forestry Corporation. Love that leads defenders to hold vigil week after week in threatened forests, sometimes locking on to machinery to slow down the carnage that is industrial native forest logging.

“The God who made the world and all that is in it [the world that is beloved by God, John 3:16] … is the One who gives everyone life, breath – everything … the One in whom we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:24-28)

We, the church, understand ourselves to be the Body of Christ. We celebrate, give thanks, for this at the Eucharist – receiving, being and becoming Christ’s body. Theologian Sallie McFague talks about the cosmos as the Body of God – all bodies as embodying the divine. All bodies as part of an ethical concern, gathered up in the liberating love of God for justice, healing and wholeness.

In a 1991 statement of the Uniting Church called “The Rights of Nature and the Rights of Future Generations” the Assembly stated that the Church attributes rights to Nature, including ecosystems, because “we believe that God loves the divine creation and wills the development of its life. No creature is indifferent in the eyes of God. Each has its dignity and thereby also its right to existence.”

Koalas are endangered in NSW. Sadly, since the NSW state government promised to deliver the Great Koala National Park between Kempsey and Coffs Harbour, the logging (clear-felling) of critical koala habitat inside the proposed park area has only escalated. The ABC, Sydney Morning Herald, the Guardian and our own South Sydney Herald regularly carry articles about this situation – including one in yesterday’s SMH.

For the last few years, the Forest Advocacy Ministry has been standing in solidarity with the forests and all who depend upon them, by working in partnership with others to increase the involvement of Christians in the struggle for forest protection. Alive to the local and global context, we have been called to the margin and perhaps even beyond what some might consider to be the church’s ministry.

Last weekend, all of our activities were outdoors.

“The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Sovereign of heaven and earth, doesn’t live in sanctuaries made by human hands, and isn’t served by humans, as if in need of anything. No!” (Acts 17:24-25a)

Things change when we get out of our buildings, with profound implications.

When we get out of the building, we the church no longer control the space in the same way. We are more reliant on others around us.

Last weekend, we received hospitality from others, like Dean Kelly, CEO of Yurruungga Aboriginal Corporation, whose family have always inhabited the Bellinger Valley. At the start of our pilgrimage weekend, Dean shared with us in firelight next to a mighty tree about his hopes for the valley, with the blessing of his Elders and his connection to his Ancestors, and invited us to join in a journey of connection and love: working together, growing in our belonging, healing Country. At Newry Forest, where logging is now suspended due to a legal action brought by Gumbaynggirr Elder Uncle Micklo Jarrett, citizen scientists gathered specially to tell us about the importance of the forests, their work to protect them, and thanked us for our time and support.

It is deeply humbling to receive such hospitality, and encourages us to reflect what reciprocity, what gifts, we might ourselves bring. There is distress and trauma among forest friends and neighbours, and we are developing a chaplaincy to support them which the Quakers have agreed to fund. A portable toilet is another gift – which is to used at various outdoor gatherings, including being made available to forest vigil camps as a Uniting Church contribution.

When we get out of the building, we are at the mercy of elements beyond our control. Not all of our rituals translate well to the outdoors. In our sanctuaries, we light the Christ candle – the light of Christ come into the world. At the Forest Advocacy Ministry “Ecofaith” gathering last Sunday, a time of spiritual connection to forests and waterways on the grounds of the Gleniffer Church and Never Never Creek, we tried to light a candle. At first the matches refused to light, then the candle. And once it was lit, it blew out. All along there was a great light in the sky.

When we get out of the building, we are more likely to not only give intellectual assent to, but also experience, that we are part not only of the Body of Christ but the Body of God.

In the Season of Creation there is an opportunity not only to bring awareness of and sensitivity towards Creation of which we are a part into our calendar and into this sanctuary made by human hands. But to venture out of it. It’s something we’ll hopefully explore together more in coming weeks – in Eden/Mirrung Garden.

Last Sunday, I woke up to a cacophony of bird calls. This morning, at home, I awoke to the faint hum of an extraction fan and the chirps of a couple of birds. The street trees in this neighbourhood, just a few species that are chosen for the harsh urban environment, seem so distant from the trees of the forests.

And yet perhaps not so different after all.

“The God who made the world and all that is in it [the world that is beloved by God … is the One who gives everyone life, breath—everything … the One in whom we live and move and have our being.”