Giotto: St. Francis Preaches to the Birds
One of the most beloved stories about St. Francis is the story of Francis preaching to the birds. Francis reminded the birds of the gifts they received from God and exhorted them to express their gratitude by praising God. At the conclusion of his sermon, the birds bowed their heads to the ground and then sang to praise God.
The sights and sounds of birds give us much joy and remind us of the gift of beauty and wonder God has given us through the diversity of God’s good creation. This year we observe St. Francis Day not long after the Audubon Society’s release of their Birds and Climate Change report. This report tells us that about half the birds in the United States and Canada are in danger of losing more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080.
This video summarizes some of the report’s findings:
We know the birds aren’t the only living things in trouble. People are endangered by climate change, too; young walruses endangered by stampeding as great numbers of walruses gather on beaches because there are few ice floes on which they can rest have been in the news recently; and articles and books about the Sixth Extinction — see, for example, Elizabeth Kolbert’sThe Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History — describe the current unprecedented rapid rate of species extinction of both animals and plants.
St. Francis taught us compassion for all living things. Such compassion leaves us vulnerable to heartbreak and grief as we contemplate the loss of our familiar birds or realize we are witnessing one of the planet’s few eras of tremendous loss of species in a relatively short time. How might we respond to such loss in the spirit of St. Francis?
Being good stewards of God’s creation, including advocacy for the people and other living things who are suffering first and worst from climate change, is an important part of our response as people of faith to the climate crisis. Preparing ourselves to minister to the spiritual and physical needs of people affected by climate change, whether they be people directly affected by natural disasters or people simply having trouble processing the great changes occurring in the world, is also an important task for the church.
Along with those actions, though, an honest response to the climate crisis and the loss of so much in our biosphere requires us to relearn the practice of lament. The Psalms teach us how to do this: bring our sorrows, our grief, our complaint out loud to God while acknowledging our ongoing faith that God is somewhere in all of this and and our belief in a God whose goodness and lovingkindness are steadfast even in the worst of times.
I’d love to see people with gifts for leading liturgy help us engage in public lament. For now, I’ll be using this space from time to time to highlight some of the losses, some of the heartbreak, sorrow, and grief, that might call us to respond with lament. Just as allowing ourselves to publicly mourn the loss of a loved one helps us both realize the depth of our loss and begin to move on, so the practice of lament might help us be more conscious of our emotional and spiritual response to the losses we are suffering collectively and help us be better prepared for the work of stewardship, advocacy, and ministry as the climate crisis continues to unfold.
Lamenting the immanent loss of some of our bird companions is a place to begin the work of lament.
– Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett