Sunday, September 28, 2014


Cry of the Phoenix from Saint John the Divine

“But Pharaoh's heart was hardened...”

If the ice will melt in the heart of man, then perhaps we will see a sustainable world (sic). Thus spoke Uncle Anga, Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, founder of IceWisdom International and an Eskimo-Kalaallit elder from Greenland. He was here in 1978, ten years before James Hansen addressed Congress on the looming problem of global warming, and told an audience that the ice was melting, as his tribal elders had forewarned. He received a standing ovation.

Tonight, at a solemn, but hopeful interfaith service at the magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Divine, this simple but powerful elder from the North spoke again about the ice melting. The ice sheet that covers Greenland was 5 kilometers thick in the 1960's. It is now 2 kilometers thick, its own meltwaters rapidly greasing a further skid into the North Atlantic. Twice during his address, Uncle Anga said it was “TOO LATE.”

To the logical mind, the Eskimo elder's remarks may seem contradictory. But the theme of this remarkable evening was the Phoenix. Two towering, magnificent birds flew above us, buffering the distance to the high vaulted cathedral ceiling. The Reverend James Forbes, who once preached at Riverside Church, embraced the theme, pulling together this brilliant pagan story with Noah's Ark, nimbly conflating the sacrificial Phoenix with the dove and the raven of Genesis. The Phoenix burns, the Phoenix rises from the ashes, infinitely, like Hindu creation cycles. God destroys creation, but leaves an Ark as seed for the next.

But Uncle Anga was more understated, simply putting forth the two kinds of ice, inner and outer. Understated that is, until he called to his ancestors, his howls and moans reverberating through the vast Cathedral, as he amplified his remarkable tonal range with two large circular skin-frames forming a kind of musical bellows to project his anguished cry back through the aeons to those First Elders of the far North. The twin Phoenixes silently soared on through the cathedral sky.

Behind him, Sojourners' Jim Wallis, who had just given a fine sermon on how Climate Change had reordered his list of social gospel issues, gobbling them all, winced as Uncle Anga sent out cry after cry, howl after howl into the Night, resounding from the cathedral vaults. It's not often Jim Wallis and Jesus's compelling social gospel is upstaged. But Uncle Anga just had, simply recounting the story of polar ice, it's mighty foundation and prophesied melt, taking global civilization with it. Yet he held out hope for the heart of man to melt – and thus for the Phoenix to rise.

Before him, calling us to “This Moment,” Chief Arvol Looking Horse, 19th generation keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle for all branches of the Sioux, in resplendent headdress, recalled the white calf bookends of his people's history. The white calf marked the coming into material form of their Mother Deity, and, fulfilling the prophecy of Dire Times, he spoke of several white calves born n recent years. One won't do it for hard-headed White Civilization; we need a succession of them to awaken us. So Uncle Anga, too, was back, pronouncing climate doom 35 years after a standing ovation, soon drowned out by implacable business-as-usual from the last empire.

As congregants entered the cathedral, we were each given a stone by a costumed troglodyte for ritual use in the service. Each speaker made a personal commitment, then walked to the altar, placing their stone as a sign. The most striking instance was when Terry Tempest Williams made a public promise to “lay my body down” along with a close band of friends at the site of the first tarsands project slated for the US in her native Utah.

Speaking for the civil rights community, Atlanta's towering Gerald Durley deposited his stone after promising that his constituency would be “the rock” of the climate movement (indeed, people of color were quite prominent at the march earlier in the day, unlike previous climate rallies I have attended). Al Gore promised to keep up the fight to his dying day.

When the time came, I deposited my stone in a primitive barrow, which was later wheeled to the main altar by a person dressed as a medieval peasant. I had not discerned my own commitment yet, but I wanted to take part in the rite, and did so as a place-saver until I found what that might be. In the interim, my wife and I have decided to max out our inverter and add two more solar panels on a pole, since those on our rooftop cover all the usable space. We also are shifting as much as possible from cow dairy to goat and sheep products, since these ungulates emit less methane (we haven't eaten beef for decades).

This service, orchestrated by Union Theological Seminary and numerous partners, was as thoroughly planned as the March, a magnificent array of voices from many traditions, with superb musical intervals by artists-in-residence Paul Winter and the brilliant and sensitive percussionist John Arrucci, as well as a mixed quartet of Cathedral Choir singers who exquisitely offered simple chants as well as a complex composition by a modern Egyptian composer Mohamed Abdel Al-Fattah's on the theme of Ai-Yu, expressing “awe, excitement, and wonder” at the penultimate moment of the latest Phoenix, the Phoenix of the Anthropocene.

Though the Phoenix theme is an old one, and Earth nowhere near finished with her evolutionary tapestry, Uncle Anga reminded us that it is too late. Too late unless our collective hearts melt, and we awaken into a chastened human community restored to an integrated place in a diminished, but surviving web of life. Weep, my reader, reaching deep within yourself to find that wailing voice which connects with your own First Ancestors. May those tears initiate the kneading of your hearts until they melt into the living waters of New Life. The old Phoenix must die.

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