Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Rogation Days: Praying the Bounds of a Warming World

The traditional English celebration of Rogation Days, the three days preceding Ascension Day, included a procession around the boundaries of the parish (often coextensive with the boundaries of a village). At stops along the boundaries, the congregation prayed for the welfare of the village and especially for a good growing season, and the priest blessed the fields. The procession stopped several times for these prayers and blessings, often at important landmarks along the boundaries of the parish. Along with an occasion for prayer and blessings, walking the bounds or beating the bounds also ensured a public memory and a clear public proclamation of exactly where boundaries lay. Ensuring clarity of the boundaries eliminated disputes and gave everyone a common understanding of the bounds of the parish.

The Book of Common Prayer for the Episcopal Church adapts the tradition to our time and place by focusing on traditional rural concerns for the growing season the first day, commerce and industry the second day, and stewardship of creation the third day. In this way, the custom of offering prayers and blessings on the Rogation Days has been preserved in a meaningful way for our context. But since we aren’t living in old English villages, the traditions of creating awareness of boundaries and blessing the bounds has been lost along the way. Some Episcopal parishes process around a neighborhood, community garden, or large church property or drive out into the country to bless a parishioner’s fields, allowing the tradition of praying these prayers outdoors with a festive procession to continue, but any “bounds” that are walked lack the importance of the boundaries that were both declared and blessed in earlier times.

In this era of accelerated global warming, however, we might begin a new Rogation custom of observing and praying the bounds or limits of our biosphere. Through our lack of awareness of the limits of the amounts of greenhouse gases that can be released into our atmosphere without jeopardizing life on Earth, we have made our bounds smaller. Each year the world fails to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions and acknowledge the laws of chemistry and physics that determine the limits of our biosphere for human life, we leave ourselves less room for solutions that allow us to continue to live and live well. Our inaction is pulling the bounds tighter, leaving us less and less wiggle room. 

During the Rogation Days, we might prayerfully study the current state of global warming and pray about the bounds or limits we discover. 

Here is a place to start. The preliminary monthly average of atmospheric carbon dioxide recorded at the Mauna Loa observatory for the month of April was 403.26 ppm. (The upper safe limit to sustain life as we have known it on this planet is 350 ppm.)  As carbon dioxide levels rise, global temperatures rise. The first three months of 2015 put us on track for 2015 to surpass 2014 as the hottest year on record.

We need to put significant limits on emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases around the world to mitigate global warming. We can acknowledge the need for those limits and pray about them. As temperatures rise we will experience all sorts of big changes that will place limits on human activity. Agriculture will be impacted, marine ecosystems will suffer, and people will need to leave places that become uninhabitable because of rising seas, extreme temperatures, or lack of water. These are our new bounds, the limits within which we will try to live and continue to love one another and love God. Prayer and mindful meditation about those limits is one of the great gifts people of faith can offer now.

If we pray about those bounds and mindfully accept them, we may be able to find blessing there as well. A clear public proclamation of these limits coupled with a blessing of all living things inside these new bounds brings Rogation Days out of the realm of quaint Anglican history and into the heart of what Christ calls us to do today.

For stewardship of creation
O merciful Creator, your hand is open wide to satisfy the needs of every living creature: Make us always thankful for your loving providence; and grant that we, remembering the account that we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your good gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit live and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 259, Collects for Rogation Days)    

This post is an update of my Rogation Days post from May 27, 2014.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Earth Day 2015: The Church and the Writing on the Wall

You have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know; but the God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honored. (Daniel 5:23)

Episcopalians read the story of Daniel interpreting the writing on the wall for King Belshazzar in our Daily Office readings for today and tomorrow (Daniel 5:1-12 and Daniel 5:13-30). These readings just happen to fall on Earth Day and the day after this year. For those wanting something chosen intentionally for Earth Day, our calendar provides a collect and lessons remembering John Muir, Naturalist and Writer, and Hudson Stuck, Priest and Environmentalist. But in many ways, I find the readings from Daniel more appropriate for Earth Day 2015.

Daniel names Belshazzar's sin: praising idols instead of the true God “whose power is your very breath”. Daniel notes that Belshazzar should have known better because he had seen his own father, Nebuchadnezzar, suffer the consequences of his pride. The writing on the wall spells out the consequence. God “has numbered the days” of Belshazzar’s kingdom. By the time Belshazzar saw the writing on the wall and understood the message, it was too late.

Our sin this Earth Day is that we have set idols of material and psychological comfort and comparatively short-term economic gain above following God’s commandment to care for God’s creation. Like King Belshazzar, we should know better. We have all of Scripture to tell us stories of people who set selfish goals ahead of obedience to God, and we have science to tell us what to expect to unfold from our failure to care for creation at least as much as we care for our temporary wealth and comfort. Scientists also tell us that this a critical point in our history. We know that we face worsening climate disruption under the best of circumstances, and if we don’t cut our greenhouse gas emissions very significantly and very soon, those disruptions will be more and more catastrophic. Our days may well be numbered.

Creation care is something that the church in the United States tends to tack on to our thinking, our prayers, and our budgets after other items considered more essential to our mission. Environmental stewardship is treated like something new instead of an essential piece of Christian spirituality that we are reclaiming and re-acknowledging. 

Repentance is in order this Earth Day. We repent certainly for the damage we have done to God’s creation and the effects of that damage on our sisters and brothers and other living things around the world, but we also need to repent for the damage we have done to our relationship with God through our failure to care for God’s beloved creation. Like Belshazzar, we have allowed our hubris to get in the way of a wholesome relationship with God. The Catechism teaches (p. 848, The Book of Common Prayer) that sin is “the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” Surely that is a sin to confess before God this Earth Day.

The Anglican Communion adopted the Five Marks of Mission several years ago. The Fifth Mark of Mission is “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth”. A look at budgets at all levels and at where we put our energy, prayers, attention, and our investments show that environmental stewardship, considered essential to the church’s mission, is poorly funded and often neglected. By including creation care in the Marks of Mission, we demonstrate that on some level we know this is essential to the church’s work, but yet we fail to act as if this were an essential piece of the church’s work. 
Please pray with me this Earth Day for us to truly repent and to find the grace, wisdom, and love to heed the writing on the wall before it is too late.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday: The Goodness of Grief

Reflecting on the Solemn Collects of our Good Friday liturgy last year in the post Good Friday: Grief, Compassion and Hope, I talked about the weight of grief as we hear again the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion and the way that resonates with the weight of grief felt by people paying to attention to climate change and its effects on all forms of life on this planet.

The weight of that grief is heavier this year than it was last year. Since last Good Friday, 2014 has been declared the warmest year on record. As 2015 is underway, we continue to break records for the hottest continuous twelve months on record.  Arctic sea ice has hit its lowest winter maximum on record. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now commonly at or above 400 ppm. A new study shows that the rate of sea level rise is greater than previously thought.

California is under a Drought State of Emergency while the northeastern United States is emerging from big winter snow totals that broke records in places like Boston. Both situations produce negative economic impacts for people. Some parts of the world suffer from flooding and damaging storm winds while others see worsening drought. Along with producing immediate harm from floods, winds, and burning forests and prairies, these extreme conditions increase food insecurity. 

But Good Friday reminds us that we do not grieve alone. It can feel that way, because we live in a society that often turns away from facing challenges like climate change because we don’t know what to do with grief. Good Friday gives us a day when grief is acknowledged, felt, and even expected. It’s a day for people paying attention throughout the year to feel less alone in our grief and to be part of a worshiping community that can gather to grieve

The weight of grief for our biosphere has grown heavier in a year, but the promise of Good Friday that compassion for those who suffer can lift us all into a place of some sort of hope still rings true. Hope is not uninformed optimism; hope is not an irrational belief that we will magically return to a time before climate destabilization. Hope is faith that love has power we cannot fathom and even the worst of human experience can be redeemed.

And, more than ever, I still believe this part of last year’s reflection to be true:
Gathering our strength and doing whatever we can to prevent and relieve the human misery that results from environmental degradation is the only choice we have as followers of Christ. Choosing to acknowledge the problems we face and working to address them with so little evidence that we can succeed is where we draw on our faith and our hope.
We are an Easter people, even on Good Friday and because of Good Friday. Opening ourselves to grief, lamenting and being present to the reality of so much loss, also allows us to experience genuine compassion, the entry point to genuine hope.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday: Speaking the Uncomfortable Words

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

On Ash Wednesday, many of us go out of our way to get to church so we can hear or say these words that declare our mortality. They are not comforting words, but they are honest words. They tell the truth we all know but seldom articulate. We know that the way to a deeper appreciation of the wonder and joy of Easter resurrection begins with this clear reminder of the way things are: we are mortal, made of dust, and utterly dependent on God for life now and after the death of our present bodies. 

The passage we read on Ash Wednesday from Isaiah (Isaiah 58:1-12) might also make us a bit uncomfortable. God says that the sort of fast that God chooses isn’t a traditional fast; it isn’t practicing false humility, but it’s doing something bold: loosing the bonds of injustice, freeing the oppressed, feeding and clothing the hungry and giving them shelter. 

Different people take different paths for Lenten discipline. Different stages of life and especially different stages of the faith journey call for different practices. Anything that helps us repent of “our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 268) is appropriate for a Lenten discipline, and especially so as the gap between what climate scientists expect us to experience this century and what we are doing to either mitigate that or prepare for it seems to grow greater every year. 

Once again this year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ offers the option of a “carbon fast”, a calendar with a different action each day to help us become more conscious of our energy use and more conscientious about our stewardship.  Another option is a simple practice of spending some time outdoors every day just looking and listening and reconnecting to God through reconnecting with God’s creation. [See Lent in God’s Holy Creation]

Another practice to consider adopting this Lent resonates with the truthful but sometimes uncomfortable words of Ash Wednesday: we could simply speak out loud about climate change. People are uncomfortable talking about climate change. After all, we are uncomfortable talking about our own mortality, and if climate change continues under the “business as usual” scenario that seems to be all our political and business leaders can muster, we are talking about ecocide, about the death of the biosphere that supports and sustains all living things on our planet. Speaking the truth — just saying the words — requires some boldness and courage in most settings. There is an unwritten, unspoken, assumption that climate change, like death, is not something to acknowledge in polite company. It doesn’t need to be argumentative or in people’s faces; it is often enough to say, “I’m concerned about climate change.”

In a completely secular setting, Bill Nye (the Science Guy) recently talked about climate change on MSNBC and asked that television journalists “just say ‘climate change’”. In this clip, you hear him say, “People ask me all the time ‘What can I do about climate change?’ Just talk about it. If we were talking about it, we would raise awareness and we would get to work.”

There is even more reason for Christians to talk about climate change. Just as we must take an honest look at our personal mortality in order to appreciate God’s gift of life both now and eternally, we must take an honest look at climate change in order to realize the precarious and precious nature of our biosphere. We must take an honest look at climate change in order to be grounded in the truth that can give us the sense of urgency to act boldly to keep the worst possible scenarios from unfolding. The Hebrew prophets knew that the work of God’s people was the work of the restoration or repair of a just and beautiful creation. The work of the church in this century must include the work of talking about climate change and advocating for climate stability. If we neglect this work at this critical point of human history, and if we neglect our brothers and sisters who already suffer displacement, hunger, or increased poverty and violence because of the effects of climate change, our fast days and our claims to be praying to God in humility are meaningless. 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Deep Faith and Candlemas Light

Call it Candlemas or the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple or even, as most people in the United States do, Groundhog Day, this day midway between winter and spring marks a subtle turning of the seasons. Even this year, when Candlemas finds most of Nebraska snow-covered and frigid, there is a noticeable difference in the slant of the sunlight and the length of days that helps us know in our bones that spring is on its way. 

This day on the church calendar offers rich stories and prayers for reflection. And even though the church’s texts for the day have no immediate connection to concerns for caring for the planet or its people and other creatures, a subtle connection is there. [See Candlemas Light from 2011 about hope, or Mother Nature and Her Groundhogs from 2013 about embracing truth.] I wonder whether these texts connect in a nearly hidden way to caring for the earth because some old European calendars considered this the beginning of spring, but it's more likely that it is another instance where the Gospel message heard in our world points us to caring for all living things.

Today’s Eucharistic reading for the Presentation of Our Lord (Luke 2:22-40) tells the story of Mary and Joseph taking the infant Jesus to the temple. Simeon recognizes Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” and blesses him, and Anna begins to praise God and talk about the child.

This year Daily Prayer for All Seasons  from the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music has introduced me to a Denise Levertov poem called Candlemas. (Read the poem here.) Speaking of Simeon, Denise Levertov wrote:
What depth
of faith he drew on,
turning illumined
towards deep night.
Deep faith like Simeon’s offers a place to ground ourselves as we face the effects of climate change, which are both unfolding around us in our time and yet nearly beyond our imagination. Awareness of what is happening as our world warms can result in hopelessness as we are already past the point of no return even if we continue to work to mitigate warming and its effects. This hopelessness slides easily into cynicism, a feeling that there is nothing to be done and, hence, no reason to do anything significant to try to change things. On the other hand, some people handle the situation by embracing false hope, either denying in thought and/or actions that anything is happening at all or supposing that a few changes here and there — but nothing that changes our way of life very much — will be sufficient to keep everything much as it is now. (False hope is the coinage of greenwashing and of political crumbs thrown to environmentalists.)

Deep faith offers an alternative to both cynicism and false hope. Deep faith turns to the darkness, the “deep night”; deep faith sees the darkness and acknowledges it. But instead of turning away from the darkness or being swallowed by it, deep faith makes us able us to stare into the darkness and yet be illumined. It makes it possible for us to shed some of that light into the darkness around us. 

Deep faith tells us that our prayers and our actions have some profound meaning, that our efforts are worth something even if we don’t get the results for which we fervently pray. Deep faith assures us that God is good and all will be well even when we can’t envision what “all will be well” could mean in a rapidly warming world. 

Deep faith sustained Mary after Simeon told her, “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” It can be our sustenance in 2015 and in the years ahead. Tending to our souls, to growing our faith deeper, is essential to the church’s response to environmental degradation. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Return to the Beautiful River

The Baptism of Our Lord, 2015

On the day we celebrated The Baptism of Our Lord a year ago, I shared the experience of reflecting on the waters of baptism during morning worship immediately after reading about the contamination of the Elk River in West Virginia from a coal-washing chemical. Especially poignant that morning was singing the hymn Shall We Gather at the River? with its chorus about "the beautiful, the beautiful river".

Platte River near Grand Island, Christmas 2014
Today we sang that hymn again. This time it was the Keystone XL pipeline that was on my mind. Knowing my interest in the issue, people talked to me about it before church, keeping this week’s events around the pipeline well in my mind as our service began.  People expressed an ongoing concern about possible contamination of our water and land right here in Nebraska should this pipeline be built and used to transport diluted bitumen, a slurry of viscous tar sands and chemicals that help it flow through the pipeline. Along with the global concerns about adding carbon emissions from tar sands oil to our already unsustainable carbon output, the immediate local concern is the possibility of this mix of tar sands and chemicals leaking into the Ogallala aquifer or streams or even our beautiful Nebraska rivers. 

On Friday, the Nebraska Supreme Court announced their ruling allowing a controversial pipeline routing law to stand, taking away a legal impediment to construction of the pipeline. That same day, the House of Representatives voted to authorize construction of the pipeline. It was discouraging news to people advocating for our land and water and for some degree of climate stability, but it does not necessarily mean that the pipeline will be built. Opposition to the pipeline is deep, and Nebraska’s pipeline fighters and our allies in other states will continue to ask President Obama to use his authority to stop this project and to advocate in other ways for an end to it. Dropping oil prices and an increasing sense that it is time to shift away from fossil fuels may help make the argument against building it.

Once again this morning for The Baptism of Our Lord we renewed our baptismal covenant. We promised to seek and serve Christ in all persons; we promised to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. These promises would include paying attention to the beautiful rivers on our planet that sustain life, and to the people who are caught in a system that allows the coal industry in the United States or the tar sands industry in one of our neighboring countries to continue putting profits before the health and safety of people.

And so once again this year on the Sunday of The Baptism of Our Lord, we ask: Which will we choose? Will we choose the beautiful river of life “flowing by the throne of God”, or remain complacent and choose rivers contaminated by chemicals that are harmful to living things?

Here is a recording of Anonymous 4 singing Shall We Gather at the River?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Epiphany: Leaving by Another Road

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2:12)

Matthew’s story of the wise men following the star, finding Jesus, and honoring him as a king reminds us that we can learn a lot just by looking around — and up and down — and being aware of the world around us. The wise men read the natural signs. They followed a star that would have been visible to everyone who looked up at the sky, and yet they were the ones who saw it, had enough of a sense of wonder to realize that this star was something different and to reflect on its meaning, and got on the road to follow it. 

We are not surprised, then, to find that at the end of the Gospel lesson for Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12), the wise men pay attention to a dream warning them not to return to Herod. No doubt these observant people, whoever they were and wherever they called home, had already noticed subtleties of Herod’s behavior and questions about the baby that made them open to receiving the dream and paying attention to it. Matthew tells us that their response to the information from the dream was to leave for their own country by another road.

We call these people wise men, but I wonder how many of their contemporaries considered them wise. When everyone else ignored an unusual star in the sky, the wise men noticed it and set out on what may have been a fairly long journey because they thought the star was a sign of an important event. They brought extravagant and somewhat odd gifts to a carpenter’s infant son, and they said this baby was a king. And on the basis of a dream, they ignored King Herod’s request that they return to him after they had found the child. Instead, they did something unexpected, returning by a different way. 

Today we have people who notice the natural signs of climate change — signs such as the melting of the Arctic ice, the calving of glaciers, the changes in planting and harvest times, changes in rainfall patterns — while most of us either don’t see these things or, if we do see them, don’t wonder at them or reflect on what these things mean for us. Realizing how important  it is for us to mitigate global warming and plan the best ways to adapt to the effects of climate change that are already set in motion, they try to persuade leaders to pay attention and act. Sometimes leaders in government, industry, and the church seem to hear them. Sometimes our leaders make good statements about climate change or give speeches or homilies that sound as if things might change. And yet the amount of greenhouse gas emissions continues to rise, and global temperatures rise in parallel. Our wisdom is lagging behind our commitment to expediency, and so the little we do is ineffective.

When I read the Epiphany Gospel this year, I was struck by the wise men returning by another road. Perhaps we need to set down a different road. In particular, it seems to be time for Christians to take a new road, aligning ourselves with the wise ones of our time instead of the ones in power who for whatever reason cannot or will not create the significant changes we need to make in the immediate future. It may be time for us to do things differently in our own churches, too. Greening our parishes, encouraging energy conservation, and writing op-ed pieces are all good things to do, and they continue to be good to the extent that they build awareness, but they are not enough.

Environmental stewardship in the church is much more often than not treated as a side issue, an extra something that we tack on to appease the environmental advocates or to show that we are up on contemporary issues. Even if we know in our heads that climate change threatens everything else we do — all of our financial stability, our programs, many of our buildings, and eventually the welfare of all of our people — we have not allowed that knowledge to penetrate our hearts or our guts, where our intuitions and dreams would show us a different way to go about being the church. 

When we can be in a worship service for an hour and never have any inkling from any of the prayers, announcements, or preaching that climate change is an issue, or when we can sit in committee meetings or church councils and never be asked to consider global warming as we plan, then there is a wide gap between what we know at some level in our heads and what has seeped in deeply enough to really change our direction. At the very least this century, the church should be aware that the work of caring for those who are poor, hungry, refugees, or in spiritual anguish will increase as the effects of climate change worsen and become more widespread, and we should be planning to act on that awareness. And to really be serving as Christ’s body in this world in this century, we should be leading by word and example to mitigate the extent of global warming, showing our awareness of what is happening to our world and making major shifts in our priorities that reflect a deeply felt knowledge of what is happening.

What does that different road look like for us? I suspect we may not know until we commit ourselves to taking it. We may need to make a new road by walking, by being intentional about remembering climate change and remembering the reality of today’s world whenever and wherever we do the work of the church. The old roads lead us back to the expediency of the status quo, and that is killing us. Like the wise men, we need to change course and choose a different road.