The Deforestation of our Spiritual Landscapes

Ethiopian Church Forests and Reclaiming the Distinction between a Career and a Calling

My Dear One,


What comes to mind when you envision the landscape of Ethiopia? Most of us probably conjure up an image of a barren, blistering desert with people struggling to grow enough food to survive. This was not always so. As recently as just a hundred years ago if you traveled to Ethiopia you would not have found desert but rather abundant forests and grasslands. Something changed. Today, thanks to the Ethiopian Church, something almost magical of that era yet remains in Ethiopia, containing within it the seeds of hope for the reforestation of their nation.


I believe the Church has the power to do the same thing for the rest of the world … if we want it to. Understanding how this is so also directly connects to the deepest desires of your own heart, it lies in understanding the important distinction between a career and a calling.


According to a National Geographic article from earlier this year,

“In the early 1900s, it’s estimated that trees covered roughly 40 percent of Ethiopia. But over the past century, as populations grew, the demand for food skyrocketed. Acres of forests were replaced by agricultural fields. Slowly, over the decades, the total amount of tree-covered land shrank—it now hovers at just around four percent of the country.”


Except, that is, around their churches. There you will often find a collaboration of clergy, conservationists and the surrounding communities working together to preserve and protect what is left of what once was - and what could again be.


The Church Forests of Ethiopia are the sanctuaries of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church. With 50 million members they are the predominant religious group in the country and, they believe, churches should be properly clothed within a forest. Decades ago the surrounding land began giving way to “modern” (read Western) agricultural practice with its propensity to clearcut forests to make room for wheat fields and pastures for grazing. Sadly, those practices have now left the land impoverished and struggling to feed its people, the very problem which the clearcutting was supposed to help solve. As this shift began to take place, however, many churches built walls around their immediate forests. These walls served to demarcate their sacred forests from the grazing of cattle and plowed up fields. Today, when viewed from above, they appear to be mirages, unlikely glens of green in the midst of brown barrenness. But they are real reflections of what once was the entirety of the land around them.


They contain within their small bounds an incredible amount of biodiversity: old growth trees, plants, insects and animals. Thanks to the Global Oneness Project, in collaboration with the New York Times, you can see them for yourself in a recently released 9 minute documentary film about Ethiopian church forests (below).


In the film, ecologist Alemayehu Wassie Eshete begins by saying,

“In Ethiopian Orthodox teaching, the church - to be a church - should be enveloped by a forest. It should resemble the Garden of Eden.”


In contrast, filmmaker Jeremy Siefert, an American, describes most churches in the Western world pretty accurately writing, “I grew up attending churches surrounded by parking lots and populated by congregations that didn’t connect their spirituality to ecology.”


Eshete later notes that church forests hold within them “emergent properties” which stem from the realization that “Everything is important and interlinked.” And priest Aba Gebre Mariam Alene says,

“Just like we cultivate the new generation [in the church], we need to cultivate the forest. If we keep disturbing the young sprouts and the old trees are gone, there will be nothing to replace them … If the church loses its forests it will lose itself.”


This, I believe, is also true of us. As we lose our forests (sense of sacred place) we are also losing our church (sense of ourselves, our identity in Christ).


This is directly tied to the changes in agriculture and industry over the last 100 years in America as well. As we too have become increasingly “modernized” we have lost our sense of community and the traditional center of those communities, the Church, continues to suffer along. In our work we have largely abandoned callings for careers. Callings contain within them an inherent focus on being called by God to a holy work. In contrast, the word career literally means “out of control, a racecourse.”


The etymology of the word career is

"a running (usually at full speed), a course" (especially of the sun, etc., across the sky), from Middle French carriere "road, racecourse”


And the definition reveals much the same:

career

1. a job for which you are trained and in which it is possible to advance during your working life, so that you get greater responsibility and earn more money

2. (especially of a vehicle) to move fast and in a way that is out of control:

“The car careered down a slope and collided with a bank.”


A career, at its very root, is about racing through, advancing with increasing consequence, to the possible point of losing control. This is not a healthy vision for our lives. Is it yet possible to re-root our sense of self within the sacred and trade in our careers for our calling?


A conversation I had this week with a young woman one semester away from graduation is a great reminder. From an early age she knew she wanted to do something to help people. And when asked today what she wants to do, this is still her response, to somehow help people - though she isn’t at all clear how she will do this. In the intervening years, she has worked to receive a degree in architecture from a prestigious university. With her diploma firmly within reach, she is actually planning to skip walking across the stage on her graduation day. She will, instead, be winding her way towards Scotland for a pilgrimage and then plans to spend the rest of the summer working at a youth camp. What lies beyond that she does not know. Her classmates have plans to go to work for an architectural firm or start up their own. She knows that if she doesn’t find a way to be out in the world, helping people in a very hands-on way, her soul will shrivel and dry up. My hope for her is that she will yet find a way to put her architectural and artistic skills to use in creating beauty with others, especially, as she hopes, with poor or disabled people.


The irony is she feels like she is lost compared to her classmates. They seem to have such straightforward “career paths” ahead of them. I actually think she’s years ahead of them in realizing that her work must somehow be tied to a deeper sense of call. All the money her work could provide will never satisfy the deeper longing of her soul to love and serve others. The two must come together if she is ever to feel whole.


As Ethiopian conservationist Eshete says, “We can bring back the [forested] landscape given that these church forests exist. That’s my hope. That’s my vision.”


That’s a bit of my vision too. Is it possible with what is left of the Church, shrinking though it may be, to re-forest the world with a sense of God’s grandeur, with limbs that reach heavenward and roots that run to a deeper source? In leading people through intentional spiritual journeys, centering our lives in loving God Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength, I have seen time and time again a renewed sense of calling awaken with them … and within me. What does your soul yet yearn for? What sacred forest of imagination contains within it your true Church, the place of your clearest belonging and community? What “emergent properties” remain within the calling voice of God which has not been extinguished in the Church or the larger world, remaining just underneath the surface, yearning to break through?


The deforestation of our spiritual landscape threatens to erase our remaining tangible glimpses of Eden. This cannot be allowed to happen. Loving God with all our Heart leads us to our calling, our true vocation. So let us go boldly together planting and proclaiming an alternate vision for life, grounded in God’s call to love, seeking out the other sacred saplings, …


following The Way,

Rich


Video: The Church Forests of Ethiopia


Quoted articles

What Makes a Church? A Tiny, Leafy Forest by the New York Times

Ethiopia's 'church forests' are incredible oases of green by National Geographic


Also, the Global Oneness Project makes some really fascinating and beautiful films. If you aren't familiar with them, check them out.

Side Note

I'll also mention as a side note a movement in the Christian traditions in Europe and North America to create focused spaces for worship in nature, fueled in part by the book Forest Church: A Field Guide to Nature Connection For Groups and Individuals by Bruce Stanley and other movements such as Holy Hikes. These are not church forests as in Ethiopia but rather forest churches where people go into the wilderness that already exists to create worship. It is a hopeful movement that can help us reconnect our theology with our ecology, reclaiming a sense of place as inherently important in our worship of God.

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