Reflections on Be Not Afraid – Consider the Lilies Conference

Three days of rigorous thinking, lively conversation, conviviality, joy, celebration, and friendship.

By Kurt Armstrong, Community Development Pastor at St. Margaret’s Anglican Church 

July 4, 2023

I’ve got genuine sympathy for all the folks who still have serious questions about climate change, the reluctant, the doubtful, the skeptics, even the flat-out deniers, whose numbers are in steady decline. In Elisabeth Kubler Ross’ five stages of grief, denial is simply stage one. Maybe a better term for the “deniers” would be “early-grievers.”

It’s a lot to take in, of course, the statistics, reports, prognostications and prophecies of the long-view scientists and policy-makers. But by this point, pretty much everyone has real things to grieve about. Go ahead, if you are so inclined, and quibble about temperatures and rates, timelines and trajectories, but nobody I know is raising a glass to the day’s news reports about droughts, floods, extinctions, and out-of-control forest fires. Things look bad, scary, disturbing, sometimes catastrophic. Plenty of us who read David Wallace Wells’ devastating Uninhabitable Earth, skipped right to depression, stage four in the grieving process.

How are people to talk about these things without being mired in gloom and despair?

While the Christian life includes plenty of space for all the hard things of human existence, including things like collective and personal grief, it doesn’t ultimately end finally in resigned acceptance like Kubler Ross’ model of grief. Robust Christian thought and practice includes the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, each of which was manifold and abundant at the A Rocha Manitoba/St. Margaret’s Anglican conference, “Be Not Afraid/Consider The Lilies.”

Hope-filled learning together

For a subject as gloomy and dire as climate change, this was a joyful, lively three days. Norman Wirzba opened the weekend with a Friday evening lecture on the theology of sufficiency. Wirzba teaches theology at Duke, but he speaks like a pastor whose heart recalls its roots in his agrarian, southern-Alberta hometown. Unassuming and eloquent, Wirzba set a winsome tone for the weekend with an invitation to consider the lilies and the non-anxious trust in the provision of almighty God. A theology that extolls engagement and care, the best kind of Christian engagement, avoids the twin pitfalls of despair and blind optimism.

First thing Saturday, Regina-based author and grassland conservationist Trevor Herriot led a birding group on a relaxed stroll through a nearby riverside park, sharing his real love and deep knowledge of prairie avian species and the complex ecosystems they inhabit.

Back to St. Margarets for a Saturday morning of stacked workshops on the “shadow places” of western hyper-capitalist culture, ways to nurture a culture of conservation in local congregations, and the measured practices of watching and writing. Folks gathered together for a delicious lunch and shared with each other what they’d heard and seen in the morning. Rev. David Widdicombe offered a theologically robust lecture on the disintegration of post-enlightenment optimism and the promise of Christian realism, followed by a Joanna Macy-inspired “Council Of All Beings” led by A Rocha Manitoba staff. The evening featured an engaging panel conversation on the question, “Is the world cursed?” followed by a mini-concert from the warm, joyful, and virtuosic Steve Bell.

Back one more time for Sunday morning, where Wirzba preached on the practice of rest, and the St. Margaret’s choir and small ensemble accompanied the congregation during Eucharist. And at the end of the service, the deacon stood in the centre of the congregation and, once again commissioned us all: “Go forth into the world, to love and serve the Lord.”

That closing word is like a spiritual starter-pistol: the gathered body launches out into the week in as many directions as there are people in the room, each of us held in the love of God in Christ, our spiritual compass reoriented for the work before us. I’ve been saturated in church language my whole life, and many a Sunday my eyes glaze over at the familiar passages, prayers, and themes. But this time I was wide awake and attentive, my senses refreshed, my heart strengthened. It’s an overused term, but I’ll use it anyway: I felt genuinely blessed.

“Go forth into the world, to love and serve the Lord.”

Three days of rigorous thinking, lively conversation, conviviality, joy, celebration, and friendship, capped off with worship and a word of sending and blessing: go forth. Even the good, righteous work of stewarding the good gifts of God’s creation will many times be discouraging, exasperating, and heartbreaking, and it will certainly be exhausting. But there are too, these times of real renewal, periods of building and strengthening as brothers and sisters in faith gather, speak, listen, think, sing, and enjoy. “Be joyful, though you have considered the facts,” exhorts Wendell Berry; “Don’t forget about delight,” sings Bruce Cockburn. Check, and check: for such a sobering subject, it was plenty joyful; and the delightful moments were abundant.

If you couldn’t be there and are now you feel like you missed out, you’re right: you did. The good news is, this was only the first annual “Consider The Lilies” conference. Plans are already underway for next year’s event. Keep an eye out for details.

Featured photo: Tim Cruickshank

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