Moderator Mardi’s Blog: Ecotone—A fine metaphor

My favourite new word is ecotone. I discovered it when preparing my sermon for the national Worship Matters event that took place in Toronto in June.

Ecotones are transition places, where one type of landscape meets another. The word was coined from a combination of eco(logy) plus -tone, from the Greek tonos, or tension—in other words, a meeting place where ecologies are in tension. An ecotone may be a sharp boundary or it may involve a zone of transition. A wetland often serves as an ecotone between forest and grassland.

I’ll say more about the place of ecotones in the natural world, but first let me say that I think “ecotone” is one very powerful way of describing who we are as The United Church of Canada. This is especially true when we provide a safe place for people to come together from diverse theological views to experience grace together, discovering new ways of being God’s church in God’s world. (Having been with Bruce Sanguin at Naramata last week, and the good folks of Eden Mills United Church yesterday, giving leadership to become a carbon neutral community, I have fresh evidence of this—but that’s for another blog.)

In nature, animals love ecotones because they can be nourished by both sets of habitats within a short distance. And ecotones support species that are highly adaptable, able to move freely across the boundaries. Ecotones house a greater diversity of species than the zones on either side.

It seems to me that worship is an ecotone, or at least it shares many of the same characteristics, and maybe that’s one reason why worship matters so much.

Without worship we risk being divided within ourselves and within human community and from the rest of creation.

When we gather in weekly communal worship, we bring together the tensions between our experiences of the sacred and the secular; we open ourselves to God’s view, holy truth that we then take into the rest of our week. Like adaptable species, we are nourished by this opportunity to span the boundaries between differing and competing parts of our lives in conversation with the Holy. Without worship we run the risk of being divided within ourselves, not discovering our wholeness, as God intends for us. (I’d say the same risk exists without daily prayer, by the way, but that too is for another blog.)

When we gather in worship, we come together from the four sacred directions. We are diverse peoples who hold this diversity in tension, sharing in an experience of Holy Spirit that brings and holds us together. Without worship we run the risk of being divided within human community, not discovering our wholeness in community, as God intends for us. The worship ecotone celebrates and promotes diversity, just as the natural one does.

A healthy worship ecotone can accommodate many forms of diversity, all manner of ages and cultures and abilities.

And, perhaps especially today, all manners of worshiping God. Can we create teeming, life-sustaining transition zones between those who argue for fixed doctrine and call it “orthodoxy” and those who argue for an abandonment of tradition and call it post-theism? Can we inhabit a zone where we celebrate tradition without fearing exploration and where we explore boldly without abandoning tradition?

For the sake of God’s healing work, we can and are creating such transition zones in our church and with others beyond our church who also care about the health of soul, community, and creation.

Invitations to boundary-spanning are everywhere. A young man named Steen Sollows invited me into a boundary-crossing conversation at Maritime Conference annual meeting in May. Truth be told, he invited over 600 of us into an Open Space conversation about “greening the church,” as he put it.

Steen, who is 17 years old, is typical of many young adults who are sometimes nervously yet always courageously asking us as church to get into conversations that matter, pulling us together from across boundaries of age and interest into conversations born of divine creativity. Lots of stories of Earth’s healing are being shared in these places—true stories that don’t make it into the evening news but are just as dramatic, and they’re hope-filled.

It was equally thrilling to meet with folks at large town hall meetings elsewhere during my Maritime Conference visit, listening to how they are responding with hope to the challenges of planetary healing. People brought their countless symbols of hope to events held at St. Andrew’s, Halifax (sponsored by the Halifax Interfaith Coalition for Climate Justice) and an overflowing Sackville United Church. Their symbols spoke to their compassionate action for those dealing today (and likely tomorrow) with increasing floods, droughts, fires, and other consequences of a warming planet that God loves.

As I travel throughout Canada, largely by train, I meet remarkable people, some of them climate scientists who have great hope for us as people of faith. They say to me, “We need you in this creative conversation about our planetary home. You do what we cannot do. You can change hearts. We need you!” Ecotone conversations are often found on the train.

We are responding to the need for more ecotone conversations in myriad ways, inviting God’s healing Spirit into worship and response, changing hearts.

How do you see the United Church creating life-sustaining ecotones where you live?