Review: Dancing in God’s Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion by Arthur Ocean Waskow and Ladder to the Light: An Indigenous Elder’s Meditations on Hope and Courage by Steven Charleston

[1] In March of 2020 the United States government responded to the existence of the coronavirus in our midst with a call to shut everything down for two weeks.  The worst of it would then pass over us, and we could resume our normal lives once more.

[2] It didn’t work out that way.

[3] Some of us decided that this meant there wasn’t really any serious threat after all – that the pandemic was a horrible hoax.  Some of us decided that the danger was much worse than we’d thought – that we’d better protect ourselves and hide from the virus until a cure (or at least a vaccine) came to our rescue.  Some of us struggled to discern how to lead a community of believers through this valley of the shadow of death – to discover and follow the path toward which God was calling the church.

[4] In the midst of so many things I did not understand, I searched for wiser souls to guide me.  I was greatly supported by the Festival of Homiletics last year.  It was so good to hear from others engaged in the same quest for signs of what God would have us do.  We hadn’t been trained to preach through a pandemic; we hadn’t anticipated that we’d ever need to do such a thing; we were having to rewrite the book on how to address the congregations caught up in this global crisis – but God had called us to this work, and God would show us the way through it.

[5] In the aftermath of the homiletics conference I resolved to devote my personal and professional reading list to books and articles that would reorient my mind, my heart, and my spirit to this new challenge the world was handing to the churches.

[6] Two of the most insightful, most helpful, and most hopeful guides that I came across were Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow’s Dancing in God’s Earthquake and Steven Charleston’s Ladder to the Light.  Both authors, in different ways and in keeping with their different backgrounds, assured me that – no matter how unfamiliar this territory seems to us – God’s people have been here before.  From the perspective of ancient tribes deeply connected to the earth upon which they dwell, Jewish and Native American people have experienced world-ending catastrophes before.  Even after holocausts and genocides, exiles and trails of tears, they are here to give witness to the faith within them, to remind us that their history is also a part of our history, and that God has not forsaken us.

  • “We are all living through a world earthquake.  Not only hills and mountains, rivers and oceans are dancing in the earthquake, as Psalm 114 foresaw.  Every human community is quaking.  Every aspect of our lives is shaking under foot and in our bellies – political, sexual, familial, intellectual, medical, military, economic, ecological.  And some of us are trying to learn how to dance.”   (page xvii)

[7] In Dancing in God’s Earthquake, Rabbi Waskow responds to this situation from a biblically, theologically, and ecologically oriented perspective.  He calls upon us to listen in new ways to the old, old story we know so well and to reevaluate the lessons we’ve learned from its pages.  He invites us to listen with open ears to the messages the earth and its creatures are sounding – so many of whom cry out in pain as they respond to hostile forces acting upon them and breathe a death rattle as they perish.  The end seems to be approaching ever so rapidly – but, he reminds us, we have experienced this before.  Just look at the book of Exodus:

  • “…the story describes the concentrated power and the arrogance, cruelty, and stubbornness of a Pharoah whose subjugation of human beings soon became a subjugation of Earth.  Undrinkable water.  Impossibly intrusive frogs…Boils.  Mad cow disease.  Hordes of locusts, swallowing up all food crops.  Unprecedented hailstorms, flashes of fire kindling and burning trees in orchards and forests.  Darkness so thick that human beings become invisible to each other.  And more – ultimately, the death of first-borns in every Egyptian family….Though the ancient plagues were the horrifying results of Pharoah’s cruelty, they became the instrument of liberation.”  (pages x-xi)

[8] We have been taught to fear all that we might sacrifice if we pause in our rush toward the extinction of life on this planet, but the planet, the news headlines, and our God are calling out that we humans need to stop and reevaluate our life on this earth.  We need to confess the ways we are contributing to the destruction all around us, and we need to repent of our participation in that process.  We need to rediscover our proper place in God’s scheme of things.

“If we fail to wrestle God, we will murder a brother; just as it is only when Jacob learns to wrestle God that it becomes possible for him to make friends with his brother.”  (page 134)

[9] But reconcile we can; work together we can; face the danger with hopeful hearts we can; trust in God’s sovereignty and commitment to this creation – and to its people – we can.  Dancing in God’s Earthquake begins to teach us how to do this alone and together.


  • “…let me share one encounter that illustrates the kind of darkness I believe we inhabit.  Several years ago, I was standing in a parish hall in New England, speaking to an audience of largely professional people with comfortable incomes…They should have been confident, but they were not…
  • “The depth and nature of their worry was revealed in how they responded when I asked them to name one institution – one public system in our culture – in which they still had complete confidence.
  • “Would that be in our educational system? I asked.  The room was silent.
  • “Our political system?  Silence.
  • “Our judicial system?  Silence.
  • “Our health care system? Silence.
  • “How about our religious institutions?  Surely we still have confidence in them?  More silence.” (Charleston, pages 3-4)

[10] Steven Charleston, an Episcopal priest and a member of the Choctaw nation, speaks to the “world earthquake” from a different perspective.  His focus is on restoring our courage in the face of the dangers all around us and rebuilding our human community as a primary means of addressing the issues that threaten us.

[11] He begins with the image of the kiva,

  • “a square or circular underground chamber, covered by a roof of wooden beams with an opening in the center.  You enter a kiva…by descending the ladder.  Once inside the packed earth chamber of the kiva, you are in darkness…the only light comes from above you…
  • “The kiva is a sacred space…
  • “…The kiva points us in a new direction: not an escape from this world, but an entering into it.  The kiva is a womb.  It is a place of origins.”  (pages 1-2)

[12] The kiva becomes a metaphor for our current spiritual situation.  We feel overwhelmed by forces hostile to life as we have known it.  We have no clear and trusted authority to rally us against them.  We are afraid to step outside our comfortable, protective womb.  And yet we must eventually leave it if we are to become the people God has created us to be and to experience the abundant life that God intends for this world and its inhabitants.

[13] Charleston invites us to view this kiva as a place not of endings only, but of beginnings.  He uses not only the image of a womb preparing its fetus for birth into a new reality, but also the earth nurturing a seed in order to turn it into a plant that nourishes others.  It is a place of growth, of learning, of practicing the skills we will need when we reach the light at the top of the ladder we must climb in order to exit our kiva.

[14] The chapters in this book are named for eight rungs on the ladder that describe eight stages we pass through before we are ready for the new life that awaits us: faith, blessing, hope, community, action, truth, renewal, transformation.

[15] The kiva is also a symbol of the spiritual resilience of North American indigenous peoples.  “Our traditional religious practices were banned.  Our sacred objects were taken away from us and either destroyed or put in museums as a curiosity for our conquerors.  Our families were scattered into diaspora.  Even our languages were forbidden….But we are still here.  Our voice is still strong.  Our vision is unimpaired.  Native America knows something about resisting darkness.”  (Charleston, page 2)

[16] Ladder to the Light generously shares that knowledge with the rest of us.  It is a call to recognize our common humanity and our common adversities.  It is also a call to recognize the other creatures of this earth as our kin, without whom we cannot survive.  It resonates powerfully with the Christian obligations to love our neighbors as ourselves, care for the earth, believe in the coming resurrection to new life, and be not afraid of what is to come, for God is in the birthing of it.  Houses divided against themselves cannot stand, and so, “in these days of darkness, we need to be about healing ourselves from past conflicts and empowering one another for the shared struggle we all face together: the struggle to bring peace, justice, and healing into our world.” (page 155)

[17] Both of these books provide excellent devotional material for individuals and small groups settings.  Their pages abound with sermon inspiration and illustrations.  They are trustworthy spiritual guides to rethinking our theologies, traditions, and practices to better enable us to live in a post-pandemic world.

[18]I would like to conclude with a quote from Dancing in God’s Earthquake:

  • “It is uncanny that the human race as a whole is at the moment struck with a viral disease that attacks most powerfully our ability to breath.  And uncanny again that at this moment we live as part of a planet that is choking, ‘We can’t breathe.’…
  • “…the crucial biblical ‘Name of God’ – YWHW – is “unpronounceable” because “YWHW” with no vowels, is just a Breath.
  • “Every effort to choke the breath from a living person or community or a species or the planet is a violation of God’s Name.  We ‘take the Name in vain’ whenever we forget that every breath we take is Itself the Name, and is part of the great Breath that is the Holy One.”  (page xxxii)








Janice Mynchenberg

Ordained in 1988, the Rev. Dr. Janice Mynchenberg has served the majority of her years of ministry as a trained interim specialist.  She has worked with ELCA and UCC congregations in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Alabama, and Washington D. C.  as well as serving as an ecumenical chaplain in a retirement community for three years.  She is currently serving as the pastor of Epiphany Lutheran Church in Oveido, Florida.