Monday, April 22, 2013

Women: At the Center of a Sustainable World

by Beka Olsen

Crossposted on the Huffington Post

Last February, I had a daughter. It changed the way I view the world entirely, in ways I’d never expected. Suddenly, I spend a lot more time thinking about the world in which my daughter will grow up, and what I’d like that world to look like. This Earth Day, I’m also thinking about how women – like the one my daughter will grow up to be – can change the face of the world.

My viewpoint has always been shaped by my relationship with the church and my family. My father was a Methodist minister. My mother is a Methodist minister, as is my stepfather. I believe that we all have a responsibility to help those less fortunate than us.

My daughter will grow up lucky, compared to millions of children around the world. She’ll have good food, safe places to live and learn. She won’t have to walk for miles to find clean water – she’ll turn on the faucet anytime she gets thirsty. She won’t have to spend hours gathering enough firewood to cook her dinner.

But many women, here in the U.S. and around the globe, aren’t as lucky. I was thinking about those women, and their daughters, during a long drive across Texas last year with my husband, my mother and my newborn daughter. We were playing one of those “what if?” games that people play to while away the hours. What would you do if you could do any work you wanted? I’d help women, I said.  I’d help make sure their daughters could have the same opportunities as mine.

My mother then encouraged me to get involved with the “Healthy Families, Healthy Planet” project at the United Methodist Church. Through the project, I learned that one of the best ways to help women and girls thrive is to give them the education and options they need to plan their families. More than 220 million women around the world want to delay or avoid a pregnancy, but aren’t using modern family planning. Sometimes it’s a question of access, sometimes a question of cultural barriers. But always, it’s a question of choice – a choice I had, a choice I want my daughter to have, regarding when and whether to bear a child. I want all women to have that choice.

What does this have to do with Earth Day? I believe that healthy, thriving women both create and depend on healthy, thriving communities. Without clean air, healthy forests, abundant fish and  wildlife, we cannot have healthy cities and towns. But a healthy environment depends on people, families and communities that are empowered to make decisions that work for them about how fast to grow.

Last June, then- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a powerful speech at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, noted that “to reach our goals in sustainable development we also have to ensure women’s reproductive rights. Women must be empowered to make decisions about whether and when to have children.”

My daughter will grow up healthy and empowered to plan her family. But the world she will live in depends on the decisions we make now about how to empower the rest of the world’s women. By giving women choices and education regarding family planning, women will have access to the tools they need to make decisions about their family’s future. We can help build a world in which every woman and girl – and everyone man and boy – can grow up as blessed as you and me.


Beka Olson is a “Healthy Families, Healthy Planet” Ambassador for the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society. She lives in Manhattan.

God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale

by Sara Swenson

The smell of ice melting into damp earth. The sounds of returning geese harmonizing with winter silence over sundown. Spring in rural Minnesota means new grass, wobbling calves, thawing lakes, sunlight dissolving clouds, and the first tassels of corn brushing up from the fields.

Growing up around the farms and forests of western Minnesota, the concept of resurrection came easily. I remember my Sunday school teacher laboring through the complexity of the topic during Holy Week, unsure how to present such abstract subject matter to a classroom of kindergarteners wielding crayon-shaded cutouts of butterflies and crosses. She must have stayed up half the night crafting her lesson plans, but the theological nuances which evaded her were a natural given to her pupils After all, we had watched the perennials in our gardens and flower boxes bloom fresh year after year – leaves bursting from bark as if by magic, apples rolling red from pink blossoms, golden wheat rising from dry seed without self-conscious awareness that it was performing any sort of miracle. Butterflies casually unfolded from cocoons; kittens tumbled mewing from barns with matching stripes as their mothers; winter melt sparkled into once-dry ponds, and sunflowers turned their faces to God.

So why wouldn’t Jesus rise from the dead? Resurrection was at work every day in our farms and yards; that which the world’s greatest preachers and theologians had grappled over for centuries came to us farm kids as naturally as talking and moving. Life demonstrated Easter better than any lesson plan.

The farms and lakes of my childhood were God’s classroom. The wonders of discovering new bugs, neat rocks, and weird plants taught me awe and reverence for an incomprehensible divine so big that God encompassed all of nature’s wild diversity. My daily adventures in nature taught me humility by reminding me how much I still had to learn about the world. Every time I encountered something new and exciting, I realized how limited my own imagination was next to the enormous creativity of God in the world. If one tiny plant could hold so much mystery, imagine how much more mystery my friends and neighbors contained! I learned to be self-critical of my own assumptions about others, to practice grace and forgiveness, and to respect the surprises God hid within all life, just by walking through fields.

As I grew up and began to learn more about science and biology, this depth of mystery deepened each in God, my neighbor, the world, and in the tiny wonders of snails, daffodils, molecules, and atoms. The possibilities of this unconceivable complexity thrilled and challenged me. No longer could I comfortably accept givens or stereotypes – science itself was an expression of transforming thought and gradual evolution. Compassion became a necessity in the light of this required humility – all that I did not know became the ethical grounding for my moral and theological convictions. I could not help but default to love and forgiveness in light my own very human flaws and limited understanding. I had to practice grace toward my friends and neighbors for their own simple human limits. The incomprehensible complexity of nature was a demonstration of God’s vast mystery and an underlying requirement for me to both accept and practice grace.

As I read now about the growing trends of global fundamentalism and genetic modification, I can’t help but wonder if they are related. After all, isn’t it the same impulse within us that encourages humans to deny both the incompressible complexities of God and nature? Fundamentalism limits God to a narrow interpretation of texts and dogma. Genetic modification limits nature to machine-like decoding and human convenience. Either way, we are running away from faith and diversity by claiming to understand more than we can. Either way, we are denying the grace of divine mystery.

Globalization and the dangers of a growing world population seem to present too many unsolvable puzzles and fears for us. Instead of responding with faith and courage – embracing the possibilities of diversity and change – we respond by squeezing one another into boxes of judgment according to race, nationality, sexuality, political perspective, and so on. We squeeze nature, too, into a box of what we think we can control. In oversimplifying the mysteries of the world and one another, we mock, condemn, and cut down what we cannot understand, the same way we mocked, condemned, and crucified what we could not understand in the divine mystery of Christ. I sense, in the midst of our modern travesty, Christ is once again crying out for all, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

When companies like Monsanto claim to “copyright” seeds and redesign swaths of genetic coding in the world’s staple crops, we are faced with a problem that is not only environmental and political, but deeply theological and ethical. This denial of nature’s complexity and undermining of shared global resources reflects an unsettling transgression of the divine. What we fail to recognize in the infinite mystery of nature, we fail to recognize in the infinite mysteries of God and our neighbor. What we are willing to do to a seed, we are willing to do to one another. What we have done in limiting and dissecting a seed is what we have already done to Christ in the limited-perspective and condemnation of the crucifixion.

In limiting the capacities of plants to self-germinate or perennially bloom through genetic modification, we limit our own memory of daily resurrection. When we reduce the inconceivable intricacies of ecological systems to a few key crops and chemicals that we claim to control, we
forget our own inter-dependency on a divine grace and creative force which we can neither
reduce nor control.

Reclaiming natural diversity by refusing to accept genetic modification as our only answer to issues of global warming and global hunger is an act of faith. The dynamic interactions of bees with flowers, dung beetles with cattle, birds with berries, and beans with corn demonstrate for us a world of cooperation and diversity in community toward which we must continue to aspire. Approaching nature’s complexity with humility demonstrates hope for a world of peace, a world where we will also approach one another’s untold differences with respect and humility. Reasserting the mystery of science by protecting genetic diversity is also an act of reaffirming the mystery of God and the value of life.

Protecting ecological diversity becomes an act of faith in resurrection. Resurrection occurs a thousand times each day in the death, rebirth, and sharing of seeds. In protecting nature’s genetic diversity, we also protect our hope for transformation through our own spiritual rebirths. I pray that God’s classrooms of the field and lake will remain for future generations. I pray our global children will continue to grow up, immersed in natural wonder for the daily miracles of resurrection and transformation which are, by nature and creation, available to all. Taking a stand now on issues of genetic modification is not just an act of political or environmental care – it is an act of faith. It is an act of Easter. It is an act of mystery, grace, and resurrection. It is an act of love.

Sara Ann Swenson earned her Master of Arts in Comparative Religions at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. She is an avid gardener, writer, and cook, who serves the United Methodist Church in a variety of lovingly disruptive capacities. This fall, she will begin doctoral work in comparative monasticism at Syracuse University in New York.