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Watershed discipleship

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Jesus is our hodegos for an uncertain future

What does a transformative, earth-honouring Christianity look like at ground level, lived out in daily action? Reforms of personal habits – such as recycling and eating locally and shopping responsibly – are important steps. But we’ll need to embody a more vibrant Christian environmental ethic if we are to become the people God yearns for us to be, and address the overwhelming ecological crisis facing us today. We’ll need to do something wild, and take on the yoke of watershed discipleship.

Watershed discipleship? It’s an intriguing, provocative term that blends two domains rarely joined in our imaginations: one scientific, the other religious. Yet it’s this kind of paradigm—both data-driven and deeply spiritual, both ancient and new—that Jesus followers will need to adopt in the coming decades if we are to play any significant role in our planet’s healing.

What is watershed discipleship? It’s a movement and a framework and a practice that is being worked out, on the ground, in many locations. Activist and theologian Ched Myers gives the term two meanings, and I’ve added a third. In a nutshell, watershed discipleship means:

Being disciples during this watershed moment. At this crucial point in history, our choice is between responsive discipleship and reactive denial. We can’t pretend any longer: God’s earth is not just our grab bag and our trash can, to do with however we will. There are consequences to our actions.  Interlocking and immediate crises of climate change, diminishing resources, and widening ecological degradation compel us to make environmental justice and sustainability integral to everything we do as disciples of Jesus, asserts Myers.

Being disciples within our watersheds. Wendell Berry warns us that abstract concepts such as “saving nature,” “global thinking” or “creation care” are well intentioned, but often do little unless rooted in actual landscapes. The real question, Berry states, “is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others.” Myers suggests that followers of Jesus today must be people of specific places, who root their prayers and practices in actual watersheds of care.

Being disciples of our watersheds. Becoming an engaged citizen of a particular place—experiencing its characteristics and being formed by its constraints, its seasons, its bounty, and its boundaries—is a primary task of watershed discipleship. It is the “re-placed” identity we as a species must rediscover if we are to unshackle ourselves from the ecocidal, dis-placed path of empire. We need to go to school on our surroundings, as the ancients did, and learn core life truths from our own home places. As followers of our great rabbi Jesus, we need to treat our region as rabbi and teacher as well.

I realize my attempts to explain watershed discipleship are more descriptive than prescriptive. That’s because watershed discipleship is fluid; it remains a “work-in-progress,” an intriguing and powerful concept only discovered and defined as we live it out in our places each day.

Re-placing ourselves

Albuquerque Mennonite Church did something unusual last year: they became the focus of their own mission. Our own lifestyles in North America are what need changing, AMC realized. We’re the ones who need to be converted. As we continue to follow Jesus and be faithful to God, they asked, how do we live in right relationship with water, land, creatures, and one another? After living so long as un-placed and dis-placed consumers with global appetites and little local awareness, how do we learn to re-place ourselves and become denizens of our specific bioregion—the high desert of northern New Mexico?

In addition to learning, praying and connecting, the church was doing. Members started changing their shopping habits and taste buds, engaging more with local and community supported agriculture. A “pilgrimage” group studied their own community to see what place-based initiatives and organizations were already established in the area. A “Zero Waste” group took a first step by sorting and weighing a week’s worth of trash they found the church dumpster, and provided insightful feedback to the congregation. Others organized field trips to a nearby recycling plant, a commercial composting facility, and a local water reclamation plant. One member led a series of “urban homesteader” how-to courses while others learned about composting and vermiculture.

None of these steps are life-changing by themselves. Taken as a whole, however, these small actions reinforce one another, allowing an earth-honouring church to act as leaven in the loaf of dominant culture.

Walking the watershed way

We’re not journeying alone, either. Last month I was licensed by Mennonites in New Mexico and Colorage to be an educator and capacity-builder for watershed discipleship in the way of Jesus.

What does that mean? I’m not sure, exactly, but I mean to find out. My first step will be to visit with existing congregations and groups in the larger region to find out what they are already doing and highlight some of their place-based practices they might want to share with others.

Next, I want to encourage the communities in our Mountain States region to enter into a 10-year exploration with us, an invitation to life-change that we’re calling “Walk The Watershed Way.” How can we each – in our own context – free ourselves from harmful lifeways and transition into a better future together by altering habits, innovating systems, and living lighter on the earth?

We’re living into this question in 2015 by initiating a decade-long period of shared exploration, initiating and observing significant change in our own lives and in our communities.

Each year, participating communities will craft an annual reflection and then share it with other communities, describing the best practices, struggles, questions and surprises that emerged for them during the year. Peer communities will help develop measurable next steps and guiding questions, and together we’ll head into the next cycle.

Where will this exploration of the Watershed Way lead our faith communities over the next decade? I’m guessing that no two communities will follow the same path.

Choosing your own path

Watershed living is my path of earth-honouring, Jesus-following discipleship.

For me as a “half-done” Christian, it is not an intellectual exercise; it is experiential and transformational, a learning-by-doing that results in liberated lifeways and systemic change. Is this path for you? That’s for you to decide.

God’s gifts of clean water and pure air and good soil are in the balance; our industrial society is damaging them at a horrific pace. How can we half-done Christians change our ways, and become the people God’s yearns for us to be?

Whatever path you choose in these transition times, I believe that it must be both personal and political, social and spiritual, individual and communal.

What will it be for you, in your place, in your situation? Perhaps you’ll encourage your church to “go green” with solar panels and encourage your electric company to provide cleaner energy. Perhaps you’ll harvest roof rainwater and advocate for clean water laws. Maybe you’ll get a few folks to commit to a bicycle-based lifestyle and fight against fracking. Or maybe you’ll grow more of your own food and support local food hubs connecting producers to consumers and help low-income people get healthy, fresh food. Maybe you’ll travel into the woods for weeks at a time, and discover you need a lot less from industrial society than you thought.

We’re heading into transition times, an unknown wilderness for which there are no maps, only sketches. God is doing something new, and the Spirit is troubling the waters. As Ched Myers observes, whenever the Holy Spirit is poured out in human history, traditions are disturbed and institutions disrupted, because our untamed God is not a domesticated deity, but the One who liberates us from our enslaved condition.

In a wilderness time like ours, we need a wilderness guide. The Greeks had a word for this: hodégos, meaning a leader for the journey or a guide for the way. It comes from two other words: hodos, a noun describing a road, path a way or a journey; and hégeomai, a verb that means I lead or I think. Hodégos, then, means a conductor, both literally and figuratively – a wilderness guide, or a mentor on a spiritual path.

In Jesus, we have the ultimate hodegos, the eternal guide for wilderness times. He not only knows the way, he is the Way, and calls us to follow along unfamiliar paths. By following his call, we’ll be joining countless other disciples before us who have left empire behind for a wilder way, trusting in the words God loves to say: Be not afraid, for I am with you always, to the ends of the earth.

rewildingthewayTodd Wynward is a public school founder, wilderness educator and Mennonite organizer for watershed discipleship who lives with his family in Taos, NM. His new book, Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God, will be published in Fall 2015 by Herald Press. More of his writings and doings can be found at leavenrising.com.

This article was commissioned for Meetinghouse, an association of Anabaptist editors.


See also Part 1: Incarnate in all creation: What kind of “better life” can we embody?

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1 comment

mrh1901 August 15, 2015 - 00:02

The phrase “unshackled” reminded me of what I came across some 25 years ago related to using synthetics instead of petroleum based motor oils that car manufacturers shackle the vehicle owner to five or eight thousand mile oil change interval. Extended oil change intervals, ie. 25,000 miles or one year reduces the amount of used oil many times over. In addition, it saves on operation and maintenance expenses. If we say that we need to change the way we do things, here’s an example of walk the talk.


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