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Seeing Through the Muck by Rev. Dr. Karen H. Webster and Rev. Travis A. Webster, Th. D.

Dr. Jerusha Matsen Neal’s sermon played a significant role in setting the tone for the “Just Creation: Shalom Our Common Home” conference, particularly in light of the intentionally difficult thoughts Heather McTeer Toney had shared in her opening keynote the evening before.  Both women’s words were challenging, but we are living in a challenging time.  The ability to sugarcoat or ignore our world’s climate situation is no longer an option.

We agree with Dr. Neal that Ezekiel is a hard book to read; it is “hopeful, haunted… places stolen, then destroyed… trees cut down.  Villages burned.  Soil salted.  Laying waste to land… urban warfare… cruelty, … the sin of God’s people and… [all of which is taking place under and despite of] the sovereignty of God.”[1]  She posed difficult questions throughout her message, of which we have chosen to focus on two:


Ezekiel 47, like many passages throughout scripture, both acknowledges the difficulty of the situation and highlights that God is with us, no matter how deep that difficulty might be.  As Dr. Neal shared, Ezekiel was standing on the banks of an irrigation ditch dug by “exiles to grow food those exiles would never eat… exiles who had lost family and home… whose questions about the character and commitments of God roared in their ears.  It’s on the banks of the Chebar that Ezekiel receives his vision of the tree-lined river described in our scripture today.  We see him wading in waters of healing while the muck of Babylon sucks at his heels.”[2]

From this dismal place, Ezekiel had his vision of the river pouring from the temple.  So we, too, must both stand in the muck, while also being able to step out of the muck in order to gain perspective on how to handle the present environmental challenges our world is facing.

This fits nicely with the “double vision” that we, as people of faith, are called to have.  Jesus assures us that the kingdom of God has drawn near, yet even he moved through a reality where people were sick, injured, and hungry.  It is, then, part of our vocation to see both the hurting world as it is and the divine, healing kingdom that just as surely saturates it.  We simply must have this double vision in order not only to have hope, but to trust that constructive, concrete kingdom action is possible.  Yes, God is God.  And we are creatures whom God has called (now more than ever) to respond constructively to that which may seem hopeless.

In terms of tangible responses to the current devastation of God’s Creation (as opposed to, perhaps, feeling paralyzed or like our efforts may seem frivolous), we find the words shared in Christian atmospheric scientist and professor Katharine Hayhoe’s book, Saving Us: A Climate’s Case for Hope And Healing in a Divided World, to be helpful, and we commend it to you if you have not read it.[3]

One of the primary activities Hayhoe offers for addressing our climate situation is to talk about it.  She writes, “Religion, politics, and money have long been potentially combustible topics.  Today, though, climate change tops that list.  It’s the most politicized and divisive issue in the U.S.”[4]  She goes on to write, “Why?… I’m convinced that the single most important thing that anyone – not just me, but literally anyone – can do to bring people together [so that we can work together to address climate change] is, ironically, the very thing we fear most.  Talk about it.”[5]  These are conversations not only with people who agree with us, but, more importantly, with those who see the world, the current environmental issues, differently than we do.  This means not only sharing words with one another but listening to the words that have been spoken by the “other”—an other through whom God may be speaking.

In terms of how to have conversations with people who see the world differently than we do, Hayhoe writes, “Beginning a conversation with something that unites us instead of something that divides us means we are starting at a place of mutual respect, agreement, and understanding – which is pretty much the opposite of where most conversations about contentious issues like climate change being these days.”[6]  For example – one person may be interested in solar panels because it reduces their family’s fossil fuel usage.  Another may be interested in the potential financial savings that solar panels may afford them.  Yet another could be interested because they are concerned about the world they are leaving their grandchildren.  These are all different reasons but have a similar (and potentially unifying) goal.

One of the issues that Dr. Neal’s sermon made clear was the need to learn how to discuss difficult subjects—not just climate change, but any of the many other divisive issues of our time.  To this end, our organization (Healthy Seminarians – Healthy Church non-profit) is hoping to offer a class next spring online for the HSHC community as well as in-person at the church in southwestern Pennsylvania where I (Travis) am serving as an associate pastor.  The purpose of this class will be to help community of faith members learn strategies for addressing topics we would rather avoid.  Using a program such as the Mennonite Central Committee’s curriculum Peaceful Practices: A Guide to Healthy Communication in Conflict, we would like to help folks learn the skills that will give them ways to talk about such pressing concerns as climate change in a more constructive way.  In her book, Hayhoe quotes author Stephen Covey, who said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand.  They listen with the intent to reply.”[7]  It is this talking past each other that keeps us from cultivating the collective double vision that simultaneously sees both our reality and divine kingdom possibilities.

And, ultimately, as Hayhoe says, “The bald facts are scary, and necessary.  But climate change connects to the things we all care about: the health of our families, the economic strength of our communities, and the stability of our world.  Fixing it isn’t only good for the planet; it’s good for all of us, too.”[8]  Given the increasing rates of loneliness and social isolation in the United States (and around the world) and their effects on public health, which the Surgeon General has likened to smoking 15 cigarettes/day, joining together around shared values is vital not only to the health of the planet, but also to our collective wellbeing.  By listening to each other more fully, we humans may become more attuned to the cries of creation.  And when we work with creation rather than for or against it, new synergies for healing may arise.


[1] Jerusha Neal, “Wading in the Water.”  Opening Worship Sermon for “Just Creation: Shalom for God’s Common Home” Conference at Columbia Theological Seminary (April, 2023).

[2] Neal, “Wading in the Water”

[3] Katharine Hayhoe, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case For Hope and Healing in a Divided World  (New York: One Signal Publishers/Atria Books, 2021).


[4] Hayhoe, Saving Us, x.

[5] Hayhoe, Saving Us, xi.

[6] Hayhoe, Saving Us, xii.

[7] Steven Covey, quoted in Hayhoe, Saving Us, 225.

[8] Hayhoe, Saving Us, xii.