The Psalms: A Wellspring for a Sustainable Planet - Biblical Reflection on a Sustainable Planet

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APAY General Assembly, 15 – 20 September 2023

Chennai, India

Biblical Reflection on a Sustainable Planet

The Psalms: A Wellspring for a Sustainable Planet

Reflection by: Dr. Bartholomew Shaha

First Reading: Genesis 1: 1-5; 9-12 and 26-29. (Please use the New Revised Standard Version –NRSV Bible, as you will find therein “humankind” instead of “man”).

Recitation of Psalm 104: 1-6; and 10-14.

Second Reading: Matthew 11: 28-30.


Greetings and good wishes to all of you participating at this General Assembly of the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs.

The Creation story in the book of Genesis of the Holy Bible is so mind-captivating! From my childhood, every time I read or heard it, my imagination soared. It is such a wonderful and poetic description of how everything we see around us and above us, came into being. Of course, during my College years, as I pursued studies in Physics and Biology, and came across the Theory of Evolution, I became more sensitive and conscious of our deep connection with Nature, and our place in this ever-expanding Universe. I realized more and more that the Biblical story of Creation is meant to tell us how much God loves us and cares for us by giving us this beautiful Planet Earth, an ideal home for us to pursue our journey towards eternal life.

You must have noted in the Creation story an often repeated text that follows immediately after the creation of humankind in God’s image and likeness: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen 1: 28) And, you must have already thought about how often this text was incorrectly interpreted as human beings having the absolute power over nature to dominate and exploit it. Not only that, human history is full of stories of how one group or people systematically exploited and oppressed other peoples, dehumanizing them and taking away their dignity. Such people forget that we human beings were given this beautiful Planet Earth to take care of it, to nurture it and to grow in ‘the fullness of life’ by maintaining a wholesome relationship with our Creator God, with nature and with other people.

The consequences of human greed, selfishness and unbridled exploitation of nature and marginalisation of people have resulted in a world where we are experiencing new threats to human life in myriads of ways! Look at the unprecedented temperature rise and extreme heat waves that are making life unbearable and claiming more and more lives! According to reports, the month of July this year (2023) was the hottest month ever recorded on Planet Earth! Again, look at the frequent floods, cyclones and tornadoes that are causing so much havoc all over the world. There are ample reliable scientific reports indicating that these global environmental changes have been largely induced by human beings.

It is encouraging to see the increasing awareness of people on the real causes of climate change today. But this was not so two or three decades ago. Because, in 1995 when the World Alliance of YMCAs, under the leadership of John W. Casey as Secretary General, organized its first Global Workshop on Environment and Development, there were many skeptics who were quite negative about what were discussed and concluded thereat. They could not read the signs of the times related to environmental destruction. What is so important to note is that already at that time, the YMCA had connected the Environmental crisis with the impoverisation of vast masses of people. The Report of that ground-breaking programme, which I had the privilege of editing as an Executive Secretary of the World Alliance at that time, was titled: “Creating Just and Ecologically Sustainable Communities.” The opening words of the Theme Song I had composed for that event went like this: “This world is full of wonders, this world is full of joy/ we are its only care-takers, shall we let it be destroyed?”

The work-plan which was adopted at that Workshop was instrumental in raising awareness on Environmental issues in the YMCA family world-wide. As a result, many YMCAs took up bold action steps leading to massive integrated projects to combat climate change. Twenty years later, in 2015, with the publication of Laudato Si’ of Pope Francis, the world has received a profoundly refreshing and immensely articulate Encyclical, highlighting the need to work on “Integral Creation” which includes working for a just society as well as working on issues of the environment by establishing a close relationship with God, with society and with nature.

What inspires the YMCA to be focused on grave concerns affecting humanity as they emerge? I believe, it is its deep involvement at the grass-roots level and its constant efforts in reflection and action on what it means to follow Jesus Christ in the particular context of the times. In this regard, I think that the adoption of “Challenge 21” in 1998, as an interpretation of YMCA Mission (Paris Basis) for the 21st Century, is a huge achievement and a great inspiration for the Movement to pursue new tasks. Because, in it we have a clear expression of our identity and mission for the 21st Century, as it says: “…at the threshold of the third millennium, we declare that the YMCA is a world-wide Christian, ecumenical, voluntary movement for women and men with special emphasis on and the genuine involvement of young people and that it seeks to share the Christian ideal of building a human community of justice with love, peace and reconciliation for the fullness of life for all creation.” Amongst several action steps, the one relating to climate change states: “Defending God’s creation against all that would destroy it and preserving and protecting the earth’s resources for coming generations.”

Here, it is important to recognise the reassertion of the YMCA as a “world-wide Christian, Ecumenical” Movement. Because, amidst the increasing global trends towards Secularism and a meaningless Consumeristic Life-style, the YMCA indeed can play a unique role in enabling young people and communities to find meaning in life by exploring what it means to be ‘Christian’ and ‘Ecumenical’ today, based on one’s own culture and contemporary theological thinking. By organizing new methods of Bible Study on specific themes, the YMCA could easily offer young people a very rich and unique experience. We must never forget that Sir George Williams, founder of the first YMCA in London in 1844, had started the YMCA Movement by gathering young people of different Christian denominations for Bible Study and then responded to young people’s needs in the context of the Industrial Revolution of that time. They sought to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ as we find in the Gospels. They surely believed that in Him they “will find rest” as written in the Gospel of Matthew, “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11: 28). But sadly, today many YMCAs have forgotten about such an important programme.

In the current situation of our world today, where many young people are increasingly becoming disoriented by the deepening contradictions in society, the on-going wars, the painful effects of the global Coronavirus Pandemic, the severe economic woes; and are suffering severely from anxiety and depression and becoming easy prey to life-threatening drugs and other substance abuse, such a programme could lead young people towards a genuine discovery of their own identities and equip them in meeting the challenges of the times.

In this regard, I wish to recall that since 1982, when the Asia YMCA Advanced Studies Curriculum was first articulated and organised with a focus on contextual Theology, this Region has gathered tremendous experiences and resources in the search for a Spirituality of Solidarity and the pursuance of Christian identity amidst religious plurality. I still recall the meeting of the then Asia Alliance of YMCAs together with the World Alliance of YMCAs on “Witness in a Multi-Religious Context” held in Chiangmai, Thailand, in 1986, wherein it was stated:

“We recognized that the YMCA should identify itself as an instrument of God entrusted with the mission of working towards the Kingdom of God in solidarity with people of all faiths. Common social issues and concerns and common religious concepts and values can become a means of attaining solidarity in working towards justice and peace….

We affirm, however, that our mission is not based totally on a humanistic foundation, but on our Christian faith as expressed in the Paris Basis. This identity must be recognized and maintained always.” (See Report, page 12).

With regard to Bible Study, I believe the Psalms of the Bible is a great resource and a well-spring for inspiring commitment towards work on a Sustainable Planet. Because, so many Psalms talk about the earth, its plants and living creatures and about the entire universe. In a poetic language they show us the importance of being in harmony with nature, and they repeatedly remind us to work for justice amidst the severe oppressions and injustices that we experience daily in our societies. Very few people realize that out of the 150 Psalms in the Bible, as many as 89 of them have been categorised as Psalms of Liberation! (Marc Girard, The Psalms: Mirror of the Poor, Mediaspaul, Montreal, 1996, p.38).

It was during my work at the World Alliance of YMCAs as Secretary General (2003-2010) that I discovered the Psalms in a new light and derived much sustenance from them. As I traveled from country to country visiting YMCA social development projects, as I visited communities in cities and distant villages and saw first-hand the plight of the marginalised people, as I met world leaders and religious leaders and exchanged views, as I tried to resolve organisational problems and issues in different localities for maintaining unity in the movement, I found the Psalms a great source of strength and hope. The more I delved into the text of the Psalms, the more I noticed that they were saying in a wonderful way, what I had long desired to express. I could see that the issues of justice and peace that I try to focus on in my writings, speeches and deliberations; the consciousness I strive to awaken amidst the environmental damage and disappearance of various forms and species of life due to human made disasters, are all so directly or indirectly referred to and sharply articulated in the Psalms themselves!  Gradually, as I focused and meditated on a particular Psalm, certain verses stood out and began to form poetic verses in Bengali in my mind. Often a melody too came along spontaneously with the words. Thus, began a new journey with the Psalms.

However, I could not advance much in this adventure due to my extremely busy work-schedules then. And so, I decided to make it a priority during my retired life. I am glad to share with you now that all the 150 Psalm songs have been published in three volumes under the title “Amar Praner Psalmgeet” (Psalm Songs of My Soul), by Pratibeshi Prakashoni, Dhaka, with an inspiring Message from His Eminence, Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario csc, in each of the volumes. These Psalm songs are being sung not only in many Churches in Bangladesh during Liturgies, but also in various cultural programmes and other social events.

Let us take a look at the words of a couple of Psalmgeets, to see how they refer to the issues of “Integral Creation.” For example, an excerpt from Psalmgeet 104, which reminds us of the creation story, goes like this:

“You constantly keep renewing this earth.

Let your majesty and splendour be manifested

forever, O Lord…

The world is content with the fruits of your mighty works.

New vegetation sprout because of your blessings and kindness.

The food and grains we receive in abundance are all your gifts

We praise you, O radiant Lord!”

Or take for example a portion of Psalmgeet 33, which talks about the importance of ‘just rule’ in society, and about God who is happy to see us doing justice:

“Give glory to God, you who are faithful

Together praise the Lord on this day.

With new songs praise the Lord

With a new heart give glory to the Lord.

The words of the Lord are based on justice and truth

Forever he is faithful.

He is pleased in just rule

He is happy to see us doing justice.”

Knowing that many YMCAs have Choirs and Musical Groups, I have no doubts that these YMCAs could easily engage in creating new songs based on the Psalms in their own local and national languages. And, these Psalm songs could be used in Prayer and Worship, in Cultural Programmes and in Leadership Development and other consciousness raising programmes on various issues, including that of a Sustainable Planet. I therefore encourage YMCA writers, poets and musicians to come forward and take this idea as a new Project within their respective countries.

Thank you!


Dr. Bartholomew Shaha was unable to attend the 21st General Assembly of the Asia & Pacific Alliance of YMCAs in Chennai in person. However, he shared the Biblical reflection during the GA via a pre-recorded video.