Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Earth, We Have a Problem…

Written by: on February 13, 2015


As I read our text for the week, I thought about the now famous Apollo 13 mission transmission, “Houston, we have a problem.” The actual quote was, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”[1] Yes, the Apollo spacecraft had a major problem. And those of us who inhabit this earth also have a problem, and “we’ve had a problem here” for some time. We humans are killing our planet. Everyone knows this is true; it is a no brainer. But unlike the NASA Command Center who immediately went into action, we as a species have been slow to respond to our problem. Many of us have either decided that it is too late or just flat out don’t know what to do.

In their important book, Active Hope, authors Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone make their case that not only do humans need to be aware of ecological and social realities, but we also need to act – before it is too late. Speaking of the condition of the world, the authors write, “We can no longer take it for granted that our civilization will survive or that conditions on our planet will remain hospitable for complex forms of life.”[2] The book, written by a medical doctor and a Buddhist philosopher has some good things to say. I appreciated much of the book, but was not bowled over by it. I could not help but think of how a First Nations person would read this book; it would definitely be through a different set of eyes. Indigenous peoples have a much better way of viewing “Mother Earth,” but since the enlightenment and the industrial revolution, Westerners have usually viewed this way of understanding nature as either foolish superstition or as an impediment to progress. Perhaps we should rethink our assumptions.

As the 21st century unfolds, although we are increasing in our abilities with technology, at the same time it can be argued that we are also decreasing in our abilities to be connected, both with one another and with the earth on which we live. For example, the authors point out that in the mid-1970’s the Ladakh people in northern India were cut off by snow many months each year from the rest of the country. However, they had a deeply satisfying lifestyle due to their “highly developed cooperative culture.”[3] But all that changed with the inception of the modern consumer culture into these people’s lives. Due to a new set of values that are governed by extreme individualism, these people’s lives have changed drastically. Although they now have consumer goods filling their homes, there is an underlying sense of dissatisfaction and despair among the Ladakh people. Is this progress – or regress? Will we settle for this kind of disconnectedness we have with each other and with the earth upon which we live, or is there a better way?

In 1990, Steve Wall and Harvey Arden published their important book Wisdomkeepers: Meetings with Native American Spiritual Elders. The book is a compilation of photographs and narrative interviews with Natives American spiritual elders that began in 1981. It is a unique work that has greatly influenced me and the research I am doing. I could not help but make connections from this book with this week’s reading. Wisdomkeepers is more of a prophetic message than a mere piece of photojournalism. And I think it does a better job than our weekly reading to get us thinking deeply about our responsibility to the earth and to one another. In this book are messages that need to be heard today. It is my hope that I and we would listen carefully to this message and then act accordingly. I am going to share some excerpts from the text in the hopes that this message complement our week’s reading.

Vernon Cooper is an elder who comes from the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina. In his interview he relates this message to Wall and Arden:

I wasn’t cut out for the age we’re living in. Everybody’s hurrying but nobody’s going anywhere. People aren’t living; they’re only existing. They’re growing away from spiritual realities. These days people seek knowledge, not wisdom. Knowledge is of the past; wisdom is of the future. We’re in an age now when people are slumbering. They think they’re awake, yet they are really sleeping. But this is a dangerous age, the most dangerous in human history. People need to wake up. They can’t hear God’s voice if they’re asleep.

Heavy equipment and light-minded people have destroyed just about everything nature has provided. Well, we can’t keep ruining the earth and poisoning it and think we can get away with it. Certain destruction is going to hit one of these days. We’re on the verge of a change such as has never been seen before. God is going to intervene.[4]

Oren Lyons is the Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation and spokesperson for the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. He says, “There are no secrets. There’s no mystery. There’s only common sense.”[5] In a section called All Life is Equal, Lyons continues:

Another of the Natural laws is that all life is equal. That’s our philosophy. You have to respect life—all life, not just your own. The key word is “respect.” Unless you respect the earth, you destroy it. Unless you respect all life as much as your own life, you become a destroyer, a murderer. Man sometimes thinks that he’s been elevated to be the controller, the ruler. But he’s not. He’s only a part of the whole. Man’s job is not to exploit but to oversee, to be a steward. Man has responsibility, not power.

In our way of life, in our government, with every decision we make, we always keep in mind the Seventh Generation to come. It’s our job to see that the people coming ahead, the generations still unborn, have a world that is no worse than ours—and hopefully better. When we walk upon Mother Earth, we always plant our feet carefully because we know the faces of future generations are looking up at us from beneath the ground. We never forget them.[6]

Then comes the voice of Leon Shenandoah, the “Tadodaho”—presiding moderator of the fifty coequal “peace chiefs” comprising the Grand Council of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy in upper New York State. Speaking of power, Shenandoah says, “I myself have no real power. It’s the people behind me who have the power. Real power comes only from the Creator. It’s in His hands. But if you’re asking about strength, not power, then I can tell you that the greatest strength is gentleness.”[7] He continues:

Our religion is all about thanking the Creator. That’s what we do when we pray. We don’t ask Him for things. We thank Him. We thank Him for the world and every animal and plant in it. We thank Him for everything that exists. We don’t take it for granted that a tree is just there. We thank the Creator for that tree. If we don’t thank Him, maybe the Creator’ll take that tree away. That’s what our ceremonies are about, that’s why they are important—even for you, the White Man. We pray for the harmony of the whole world. We believe that if we didn’t do our ceremonies in the Longhouse the world would come to an end. It’s our ceremonies that hold the world together. Some people may not believe that, they may laugh at it, but it’s true. The Creator wants to be thanked. When we go to the Longhouse to thank Him for His Creation he kneels down and listens to us. He puts His ear to the Longhouse window. He hears His own children, so holds off destroying the world for a while longer.

If you white men had never come here, this country would still be like it was. It would be all pure here. You call it wild, but it wasn’t really wild, it was free. Animals aren’t wild, they’re just free. And that’s the way we were. You called us wild, you called us savages. But we were just free! If we were savages, Columbus would never have gotten off the island alive.

We are made from Mother Earth and we go back to Mother Earth. We can’t “own” Mother Earth. We’re just visiting here. We’re the Creator’s guests. He invited for us to stay for a while, and now look what we’ve done to His creation. We’ve poisoned it, we’ve made a wreck of it. He’s bound to be mad—and He is.[8]

We must listen to these voices. They are consistent. They are clear. They are calling us to action. They are calling for change. They are also wise voices that have been silenced for too long. It is time to listen. God help us to listen.


[1] This quote was said by astronaut John Swigert Jr. and then by James Lovell. See http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/houston-we-have-a-problem.html

[2] Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012) 1

[3] Ibid., 87.

[4] Steve Wall and Harvey Arden, Wisdomkeepers: Meetings with Native American Spiritual Elders (Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Publishing, Inc., 1990) 63.

[5] Ibid., 64.

[6] Ibid., 67-68.

[7] Ibid., 104.

[8] Ibid., 105-106.

About the Author

Bill Dobrenen

I am a husband, father, and educator. I love my wife, my two amazing children, and my students. My dissertation research is on the importance of Traditional Native-American Tribal Leadership Practices. Being in the LGP program is a gift from God for me during this season of my life. I look forward to another great year with my LGP4 cohort.

24 responses to “Earth, We Have a Problem…”

  1. Stefania Tarasut says:

    Bill, how do you think that a First Nations person would respond to consumerism… or how have you seen them respond to the damage that we’re doing to creation?

    • Stefania,

      Great questions. With the resurgence of traditional ways, many are resisting consumerism; however, like many who are unable to respond in this way, particularly because of poverty, they too are consumers. As far as the Creation goes, I would say that Native people are much more aware of the damage that is being done that non-Natives and that they have a deep respect for Creation.

  2. John Woodward says:

    Bill, as usual a wonderfully informative post. As you can image, bringing in Native American culture was extremely fascinating for me. Great quotes, by the way!

    As I read them, it brings me back to my post. There is definitely a major Native focus on “mother earth” – of respect for the land, for caring for the earth for the 7th generation, the personification of earth as ‘mother’. I know this is a deep a part of their culture…but I also see a strong disconnect of this with the very lives of the vast majority of Native Americans I know and work with. The issues of suicide, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, dropping out of school, poverty, broken families and gangs are so prevalent where I work. I then (and I would be curious to see your take on this) wonder how come this deep love and passion for “the earth” doesn’t translate to a deep concern for those suffering from devastating issues that most Native American communities face? This is what I wrote about in post – that if our focus becomes on a living and idolized earth, does that necessary result in a care of children and families? Sadly, from what I’ve seen in South Dakota, it doesn’t. That is why I have to think (and again, I would be interested to get your thoughts) that if our focus is on people, and really caring for people (following Jesus’ example), then we will want to insure their environment is healthy and lasting. It is through keeping our focus on what is important to God (our brothers and sisters, His children) that we take care of our planet. (But, maybe the Native Americans can say the same back to us: We take great care of our people, but that hasn’t translated well to our environmental care.)

    Maybe I making too much of this. But I am curious…does a high view of “mother earth” or care for the “plant” necessarily translate to care about people? Will look forward to your thoughts, Bill. (Wish we were traveling together this week so we could talk about it in person).

    • John,

      The realities of life have consumed many Native people, just as it has non-Native people. Just as our young people have fallen away from traditional values, so have Native youth. There are a few who are speaking to these matters, some American and some Canadian; however, for the most part, there is a lot of hurt and pain in the stories of Native people. I would recommend the writings of Kent Nerburn and Taiaiake Alfred for more information on the resurgence of traditional Native thinking. Also, there is a fascinating Navajo senator from Arizona whose name is Carlyle Begay who is doing some great work with the Navajo youth.

      John, I look forward to chatting more deeply about these matters when we get together.

  3. Miriam Mendez says:

    Bill, I can hear your passion, care and research come through in this post!
    You write, “although we are increasing in our abilities with technology, at the same time it can be argued that we are also decreasing in our abilities to be connected, both with one another and with the earth on which we live.” Your statement makes me think of what Macy and Johnstone wrote, “Active Hope is practice.” How can we practice, focus and be intentional in connecting with one another and the earth in an environment that continues to increase in and often demands that we use technology? What part do we play? Thanks Bill for the reminder!

    • Miriam,

      Thanks for your comments.

      I think that we need to keep our priorities straight. Easier said than done. Technology is not a bad thing to use. After all, look at the relationships we have built in this online course we are in now. I feel very close to this cohort, even though most of our communication is done virtually. I think it is when we are so busy with our technologies that we are being non-relational that we have our problems. Just my thoughts off the top of my head.

      By the way, I am not trying to say that Native-Americans have all the answers. But what I am trying to say is that we need to listen to all the wisdom we can find. So why not listen to these dear wise ones?

  4. rhbaker275 says:

    Thanks for helping us see God’s creation from the perspective of indigenous peoples. It is difficult for us to see our world, the mother earth of America, as a peaceful place of freedom. You note in the voice of Leon Shenandoah, “You call it wild, but it wasn’t really wild, it was free.” Shenandoah sees that it is through the gentle spirit of thankfulness that we honor the Creator and most fully and properly care for creation. We have no power to create. We can chose to honor the Creator. If we fail to do so is to disrespect and misuse what has been given to us. I love the thought that our greatest strength is gentleness. We do come from the dust of mother earth and we return to the dust … it is significant what we do in the in-between.

    • Ron,

      Thanks for your comments on my post.

      As I said to Miriam, I am not trying to say here that indigenous people have all the answers. However, they are probably the best people to listen to on this subject, so why are we not listening? God help us to humbly listen to the best voices and be willing to learn and pay attention to these matters — before it’s too late.

  5. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Bill, Thank you for reminding us our Christian call to care for the environment. Sadly, most churches in my community hold a theology that encourages exploitation of the environment. Due to our ignorance about how to maintain the environment, creation suffer. As you remind us, the time has come for us to carefully listen to those voices in and outside the church and seek to understand all that Scripture teaches us about the stewardship of God’s world.

    • Telile,

      I think that we do need to pay attention to the environment. It is sad to me when Christians do the opposite. We are to be humble, not arrogant. We need to respect all that God has made because He said that ALL that He made was good. Yes, we rate to be good stewards of God’s creation.

  6. Bill …
    With our colleagues I echo their thanks and appreciation. In reading Active Hope and in reading your post I kept thinking that it is so hard for us to not read into what is written about 1st Nations people and their way of life because of our own suppositions and expectations of what their way of life is. Reading John’s reply I also wonder if part of what is and has happened on reservations is manifest not because First Nation tribes are not living into their way of life, but because we (American people) have taken their way of life from them. With such “connectedness” necessary and essential to who they are, did we sever their very way of life? Blessings friend…

    • Carol,

      Thanks for your comments to my post. These are good words you write, important words. More and more, I strongly believe that we white people must own what we have done to the indigenous peoples of this land and openly repent of our sins. But most of us don’t know enough about this to know what to do about it. My research has opened my eyes, my heart, and my soul to see that, yes, we have been responsible for the loss of so many people. What would have happened if those who came to this land would have been willing to listen rather than tell the Natives what they needed to do?

      My hope for my research is that I might be able to help people who do not know the truth to look at the truth and own it. There is still time to listen. I will stop now. I didn’t mean to preach.

  7. Michael Badriaki says:

    Bill, great post! Thank you for sharing about this week’s reading in light of the First Nation’s people’s experience. It is fitting indeed since we can learn a lot from Native African culture.

    Again thank you!

    • Thanks for your kind comments, my friend.

      Why are we so slow to listen to wisdom? I think that if we think we have all the answers, we are in a dangerous place, especially Christian missionaries. We are to always be learners. I have a feeling that there are many parallels between Native-American missions and African missions. Would love to keep this conversation going.

  8. Hey Bill, catching up on some post. I appreciate you bringing in other sources. I have to admit that I struggle with the whole idea of all life being equal. Though I agree with respect to life, I have to often seen in India the “respect” for cows and yet their children are dying of hunger. I don’t get that. Is it to say that the cow’s life is the same or even higher than the life of a human???? I cannot go there. Only man/woman were the ones created in God’s image….. so, I do consider them to be a higher life form.

    True, Bill, we don’t dominate and ‘lord’ over God’s other creatures and due harm out of hate or violence/needless evil. The same with just cutting trees and other natural things. I am with you on understanding our responsibility to God’s creation, (I addressed this in my blog) but the whole “mother earth” dialog disturbs me in that it seems to take away our focus off of Father God. Just being real with you Bill. Thanks for your post

  9. Mitch,

    Thanks for being real with me. I love that.

    I do not agree with everything that indigenous voices say; however, I do think that these voices say things better than most evangelicals do when it comes to understanding the human role in regards to the earth. One thing is certain, none of us knows everything. There is a lot of mystery yet unknown, especially related to God’s marvelous creation. Even Jesus said the the rocks could cry out if man doesn’t. That is quite a thought. Perhaps our systematic theologies have some holes in them, even in our understanding of God.

    Finally, I am glad that “God so loved the world…that He gave His only begotten Son…” Those words speak volumes of God’s love toward all humans. Looking more to chatting about this in Hong Kong.

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