Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Deep Faith and Candlemas Light

This snowy February 2 in Nebraska, I offer a repost from a year ago, with this update:

The darkness is definitely there. This is the year we found out that major oil companies knew about the relationship between greenhouse gases and global warming back in the 1980's but hid that knowledge and continued to promote the use of fossil fuels. They lied one of the biggest lies in all of history.

In our long campaign for the 2016 Presidency, climate change is a marginalized issue even though the current administration is finally talking about it. Many voters ignore it, either giving up on the possibility of anything significant being done to mitigate it or prepare for it, or else living in a sort of denial that involves telling ourselves that it won't be all that bad or that somebody will figure out some brilliant technological save at the nth minute. This gives major candidates permission to ignore it -- or even outright deny the reality of climate change -- or make broad, insubstantial statements about climate change as a sort of after thought to the issues we are being told are the important ones.

We have had some rays of light this past year -- the Paris climate talks brought the issue of climate change to the world's attention, and the General Convention of our own Episcopal Church voted to divest major funds from fossil fuel investments. Even as the weeks and months go by with whole-hearted follow up to these pledges unclear, we can point to the solid success of the grassroots campaign to stop the Keystone XL pipeline as an example of what can happen when we step out in faith even when the deck seems stacked against success.

Last year, 2015, was the warmest year on record. The effects of climate change caused by global warming are getting harder for the powers that be to ignore. Perhaps the fact that the dark side of global warming is getting too big to ignore is cause for hope, as the first step in addressing climate change is to see it for what it is.

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 2012 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.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Epiphany: Overwhelmed with Joy

When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. (Matthew 2:10)

What has overwhelmed you with joy? The births of my children and grandchild overwhelmed me with joy, as have many moments in my children’s lives when good things came their way. Musical joy has overwhelmed me in concert halls and churches. I can count on being overwhelmed with joy at some point during the spring migration of the Sandhill cranes every year, often at the moment around sunrise when thousands of crane leave the Platte River. Similarly, spring flowers and autumn leaves have the power to overwhelm me with joy, as do the first beautiful snowfall of the year, a meadowlark singing in the spring, and the stars on a clear night in rural Nebraska.

I wrote at Epiphany last year (Epiphany: Leaving by a Different Road) about the need for us in the Church to learn from the wise men who went back to their own country “by another road”  and change our course on climate change. The church for the most part has treated environmental stewardship in general and climate change in particular as a sort of side issue, which says to me that 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". That post concluded by asking what that different road looks like for us:
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.
A year later, I’m even more convinced that we find our way home to a more stable climate once we take our eyes off the old road and commit ourselves to the task of creating a new way to respond to the needs of the world in this new world of climate instability.

We notice what is happening around us, using all of our senses. We let it seep into our minds and hearts. We pay attention to the signs that point the way, and we open our imaginations to help us piece together those signs so the way becomes clearer. We do the work of deep discernment, and when we discern the way — or at least the first few steps of the way — we start moving.

All of this takes a sturdy spiritual grounding. Staying connected to Jesus, we are overwhelmed with a spiritual joy that can support us through the work ahead. Along with that crucial spiritual grounding in Christ, if we build on that Christian joy and remain open to being overwhelmed with joy through the people around us, the art we create, and the wonders of God’s creation, we will be energized to head down whatever road will help to sustain us and other living things because we are passionate about whatever overwhelms us with joy.

The wisdom of the wise men wasn’t all about their ability to notice the signs that led them to the new King and then told them to go back by a different road. The wisdom of the wise men was also about their keeping their hearts open to being overwhelmed by joy. Joy will get us a lot farther down the road than fear will, and joy will certainly make the journey easier for us all.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Following Jesus No Matter What in the Anthropocene

Merry Christmas!

I'm sharing the sermon I preached this morning. When I considered the Prologue to John this year, it was in light of the Paris climate talks, the unholy silence around climate change in this nation, and thinking about a new grandchild growing up in this strange new world. This morning was also our annual carol sing at Church of the Resurrection; knowing that, some familiar carols were part of my reflection, too.

Christmas I 2015
John 1:1-18
Preached by Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett at Church of the Resurrection, Omaha, Nebraska, December 27, 2015

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Merry Christmas! I’m awfully happy to be here as we continue our celebration of Christmas, especially since the Christmas Eve snowstorm prevented us from getting from Hastings to Omaha on Christmas Eve. The silver lining of missing our Christmas Eve celebration here was that we got to spend some of our Christmas Eve with our three-month-old grandson, James. And Christmas is one of those “no matter what” times — whether it happens for us in a traditional setting or under unplanned circumstances or in an entirely new setting, whether we are in a happy time in our lives or a sad time, Christmas happens. Just as real babies get born under all sorts of circumstances, the baby Jesus gets born on Christmas Eve no matter what.

New babies can bring lots of joy to a family and a community. No matter what else is going on, a baby refocuses our thoughts and emotions for at least a while. When a baby looks at us and smiles, it’s nearly inevitable that we find ourselves smiling in return.

I think one reason we love the familiar Christmas story that we read on Christmas Eve from Luke’s Gospel is that we can identify with the joy of a baby being born “no matter what”. And we relish seeing our own much-loved children re-enact the story in the Christmas pageant. We hear about the shepherds and the angels and know this was an event for the whole world, but we also see the intimate joy of Mary and Joseph tending to the new baby. We push aside what we know is coming — the flight into Egypt, Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and the Cross — and focus on the joy and wonder of the baby lying in the manger.

But despite that refocusing and those blessed moments of pure baby joy, families throughout the ages, including Mary and Joseph, also have moments of concern. What sort of life will this baby have? What will the world be like as he or she grows? Can we provide what the baby needs? Many families today share the same concerns as those of other generations — the old global problems of war, poverty, oppression, prejudice, and violence. One of the most theologically significant aspects of Luke’s nativity story is God becoming incarnate in the form of an infant, completely vulnerable and dependent and endangered by the forces of evil in this world. God enters into our vulnerability and into the dangers of human life. We and our children are not alone.

Today we have a new concern, accelerating global warming and the effects of the climate changes that result from global warming. The challenges of climate change exacerbate all those old concerns, increasing tensions that lead to violence and war, making life harder for people who already struggled to have the necessities of life, and making those inclined toward oppression of people who differ from their immediate circle more likely to act on their prejudices.

Before Christmas the world witnessed an incredible gathering of world leaders in Paris to work on an agreement for the nations to act together to basically cut our losses with regard to global warming. From the point of view of the world of diplomacy and political relationships, the conference was a big success. Nations pledged reductions in carbon emissions, and small steps were taken toward righting the injustice faced by the Climate Vulnerable Nations, a group of smaller island nations and developing nations who face many of the worst consequences of climate change first despite having done the least to cause global warming. However, climate change is as much a problem to be solved by science as by politics, and from the point of view of what we know about predictions for our future paired up with various levels of emissions, the problem is far from solved. And the steps taken toward righting the injustice consist mostly of recognizing the injustice — a significant political step — and expressing a hope that the larger nations who emitted most of the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere while becoming wealthy will contribute money to help developing nations transition to clean energy sources and handle the damage already done. It’s a step forward, but I don’t know how much comfort recognition of my plight and a hope that someone might help me out would be if I lived on Kiribati or some other low-lying Pacific Island watching my crops die as salt water infiltrated my land. Because the laws of physics demand more of us in this case than do the old political play books, this major gathering of the world’s leaders is hard to evaluate.

Here, though, is perhaps the strangest thing about the Paris climate talks: After they finished and the world leaders and diplomats went home, we in the United States didn’t hear very much about them. Since the talks ended, debates for the Presidential candidates of both major political parties have been broadcast. Both debates were supposed to be about national security and relations with other nations. None of the moderators at either debate asked a single question even touching on climate change. It was as if nothing at all was happening to the climate and as if this big gathering of the world’s leaders had never happened. For a grandma hoping for some global stability as her grandbaby grows up, the all too common silence around this issue from the news media, political and religious leaders, and people who discuss every current event except this one is shocking.

It’s a whole new world, and many people feel less secure and more vulnerable than ever.

This Christmas passage from John’s Gospel can take us from the realization of our vulnerability to a realization of the fullness of life that Christ brings to us, a fullness of life that restores our hope and confidence. John’s Good News of the Divine Word, the light that shines in the darkness, is that God is indeed right here with us no matter what. The Word became flesh and lived among us, pitched his tent among us. Every place — this church, this neighborhood, this city, Syria, Kiribati, the Arctic Territories, Paris, every place — is holy ground.

A sense of sacramental living is part of our Episcopalian ethos. Sacramental living is living as if we might touch and connect with the Holy in every part of our everyday lives. It’s why we believe a small piece of bread and a sip of wine can be for us the Body and Blood of Christ. It’s why we use water for baptism, oil for healing, and a Bishop’s hands for confirmation and ordination. These ordinary, everyday things help us experience the Holy. How can this be? John tells us that God is right here with us, nearer to us than our own heartbeats, closer to us than our own breath. If we respond at all to God’s love, we will be living sacramentally, living in such a way that we expect to find God around every corner, waking up in the morning in eager anticipation of the possibility of an encounter with Jesus. And if we are in a world so valued by God and suffused with God’s loving presence, then we will live in a way that values all of creation, not just our favorite little corner of creation. And we will value the living things in those places, most certainly including our sisters and brothers whose very existence is too often forgotten or ignored.

Knowing that God has come to live among us as one of us also lifts us to a place of strength and courage. Fear and that nagging feeling of vulnerability tempt us to divide the world into us and them, where ‘us’ means good and ‘them’ means bad. When we know that the Word, the Christ, has come to live among us and we see the light shining in the darkness, we see how silly so many of our divisions are. We have the strength and courage to live in our culture without buying into the powerful cultural forces that would keep us divided from one another.

Knowing that Christ is among us and that the simplistic division of Us from Them is not reflective of the reality of God’s kingdom, we also find the strength and courage to speak the truth instead retreating into a fearful or embarrassed silence. We can act boldly out of love for one another and for all of creation, no longer shrinking back. We can share Jesus’s truth and love with a world that sorely needs to hear words of love instead of words of hate and words of truth instead of silence. We find the strength and courage to follow Jesus no matter what.

Luke’s nativity story of the baby in the manger connects us with a vulnerable baby. This morning’s passage from John helps us understand why we have hope in that Holy Child and why we continue to have hope for all of our children. The Word that was with God and one Being with God from the beginning has come to live among us! We are not alone. We can look at the world’s biggest problems and get to work on them because Christ is here with us no matter what. And if we fail to do what needs to be done before it is too late, we still are not alone. The difficulties we will face if we continue doing too little too late will be spiritually bearable if we continue to have the courage to follow Jesus and live into God’s kingdom, loving one another and refusing the loud voices of our time that encourage us to ignore or even hate those Jesus calls us to love.

What do we do to honor the Baby Jesus?  We keep loving. We keep working for justice and peace. We keep speaking the truth into the unholy silences created by powerful people who lack the courage to acknowledge our real problems, and we refuse to be frightened by the straw men they create in an attempt to distract us from the work of God’s kingdom.

Jesus is sustaining us and giving us strength and courage to do our best for all of the children of the world. And so we sing “Joy to the world” in the face of fear and anger. We let our own little lights that Jesus gave to us shine in the night of ignorance and prejudice and greed. We have ears to “hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell”, and we “go tell it on the mountain and over the hills and everywhere” because the Word made flesh has pitched his tent among us all over the world.

We belong to Jesus. We know that the light continues to shine in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. This is our joy no matter what. Amen.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Magnificat and the Unholy Silence

Advent IV

This post is a few days late; the Fourth Sunday of Advent has come and gone, and Christmas Day is nearly here.

An extra full calendar and to-do list contributed to the delay, but the greater reason for the delay has been the need for time to make some sense in light of Advent of what is happening in the world and the way we talk — or fail to talk — about it.

While studying the Gospel passage for Advent IV this year (Luke 1: 39-56) , I was struck by something very obvious that had never really caught my attention before. Mary says:
[God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 
Photo of a piece by
Pat Wiederspan Jones
These words express a hope and a longing for justice, for compassionate treatment of those who would usually have no power and no voice, for the restoration of a world where wholeness and holiness replace divisions and sinfulness. Many of us who share that longing treasure the Magnificat because it so beautifully expresses that hope. Always before, the joy of this prophecy caught my full attention. This year, however, I wondered at Mary’s words and their power through the centuries because the proud and powerful still lord it over too many people in this world; most hungry people in the world remain hungry while rich people eat far more than we need and throw generous amounts of leftover food in the garbage. The Romans and their lackeys remained in power after Jesus was born, eventually nailing Jesus to a cross. How do these words remain so powerful and meaningful to us when the economic and political structures in the world continue to oppress people who are meek, “lowly”, hungry, or poor?

The distance between the holy vision of the Magnificat and the unholy picture of our world is strikingly evident in the way those in power have manipulated the public conversation about climate change. Recent investigations have concluded that the American Petroleum Institute and a slew of big oil companies knew about greenhouse gases and their predicted effect on the climate from the 1970’s. (See yesterday’s story Exxon's Oil Industry Peers Knew About Climate Dangers in the 1970s, Too from InsideClimate News, Bill McKibben’s piece in The Guardian October 14, 2015, or NPR’s November 5, 2015 story.) They knew, but they chose to be silent about what they knew, choosing instead to work against efforts to limit our use of fossil fuels and to work instead for increased extraction of fossil fuels. That silence now endangers all living things on the earth.

The unholy silence of the fossil fuel industry was matched in the two televised candidates’ debates that have occurred since the big climate talks in Paris. In neither the Republican nor the Democratic debate did any of the moderators ask a question about climate change even though “national security” was supposed to be a focus for both debates. Surely the politically and economically destabilizing effects of an unstable climate should be included in any serious conversation about national security, especially so soon after the gathering of the world’s leaders in Paris.

This silence is everywhere — in our own conversations with friends and family where we might discuss every sort of issue under the sun except climate change, whenever we leave a Sunday morning worship service with no prayer having been prayed or words preached that acknowledge what is happening, when good people who care about human welfare write and speak about hopes for a better world in 2016 and beyond without acknowledging the gravest threat to human welfare in this century.

The economic and political structures that discount the lives of millions of people are still in place, and even though we live in a time when information about what is happening all around the world is readily available, we barely hear a word about how the big changes in the earth’s climate make human life even more insecure. The lives of “the lowly” and “the hungry” are getting more and more precarious, but we go through our days acting as if they aren’t even there.

But Mary’s words still grab my heart, not because they describe something that has happened or is likely to happen in the political sphere or be reported by the corporate media, but because they describe the reality into which Jesus invites us to live. Yes, it’s true that the powers that be in the worlds of politics and business and, too often, even the church continue to find new ways to support the old injustices and keep the old silences about oppression, but that doesn’t mean that we accept that as our reality.

Jesus showed us his kingdom. Jesus saw the people at the edge of the crowd, the women, the lepers, the short tax collector up in the branches of the sycamore tree. Jesus saw them and he talked to them, acknowledged their existence, and treated them as children of God. Jesus didn’t worry about offending the religious elite when he sat down to eat with people considered too sinful for polite company, and he preached God’s truth and God’s justice even when people were offended by what he preached.

The Magnificat gives us courage to do what Mary did, to do whatever God calls us to do and to live in the way God intends us to live no matter what other reality the powers that be offer us. Today, the Magnificat can give us courage to break the unholy silence. We can say no to the talking points and prescribed silences of those with power to lose; we can say yes to the reality of God’s kingdom and speak from a reality that sees the weakness of the powerful and the poverty of the rich. Mary does not call us to a false hope; Mary helps us to follow Jesus with eyes wide open to see the world around us as it is.

As we follow Jesus and live further into the kingdom, we find our voices and creative ways to resist the death-dealing culture of the rich and powerful. Many sense a change swelling up from the grassroots, ready to bypass the old obstacles. As we find our voices, we begin to sense that, in the words of The Canticle of the Turning, "the world is about to turn".

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Advent 3: Rejoice!

John the Baptist and Amos in Paris

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance…And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (John 3: 7-14)

John the Baptist comes along this week exhorting us to a level of repentance that results in righteous action. The examples John gives of righteous action all involve honesty and generosity with our money and possessions. In particular, if we have more than enough — two coats — we must share with anyone who has nothing. If we have food, we need to share it with people who don’t have food.

The Daily Office readings from Amos the past couple of weeks prepared us well for this Sunday’s Gospel lesson. Amos tells the people that their religious observances have become empty because of their dishonesty and their disregard for poor people. “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24)

Today (December 12) the COP21 meeting in Paris reached a landmark climate agreement. Some of the negotiations this week revolved around the question of whether to stick with the 2 degree Celsius target for global warming or revise that target to the 1.5 degree mark that the Climate Vulnerable Nations need to survive. As Democracy Now reported a protestor pointing out this week: “They are not deciding how to tackle climate change; they are deciding who lives and who dies.” Hearing this against the backdrop of our readings from Amos and John the Baptist makes it clear that wealthier nations cannot take the easy way out with a 2 degree target that saves many of us but sentences people in climate vulnerable nations to death.

Another justice question at the conference was about whether wealthier developed nations, whose industrialization depended on burning fossil fuels that created greenhouse gases, should give money to less developed nations to help them adapt to climate change. In the United States, this will become an issue for Congress to address, and it could be a tough sell given our political atmosphere. And yet we hear John the Baptist saying “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none”.

This agreement opens the door to justice, but wealthier nations will have to decide whether we will walk through it. The present international commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions would result in global warming greater than two degrees Celsius, far from the 1.5 degree target. The agreements in principle to assist less developed nations in adapting to climate change will need to be backed up by the actions of individual nations. What this agreement gives us is an opportunity to repent of our past disregard for the earth’s climate and the earth’s most vulnerable people and do the right thing. We in the United States will need to press our elected officials to accelerated our transition from fossil fuels to clean energy and press them to do justice in sharing the burden of most vulnerable nations’ adjustment to climate change.

This Third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday, a Sunday to rejoice in the midst of our Advent preparation. There is joy in justice. Our rejoicing can be full rather than empty if righteous action accompanies our religious celebration.


Saturday, December 5, 2015

Advent II: Repent!

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:1-6)

A week into the COP21 climate talks in Paris, it is too early to tell whether a strong enough agreement will result from these meetings. We hope for a just agreement that is strong enough to mitigate global warming sufficiently to avert catastrophe and not just delay it. People who understand the importance of these talks are eager for news in the days ahead. 

Although what the world’s leaders do with this opportunity will probably be what we remember most about 2015 in the years ahead, our news in the United States this week has been dominated by other stories. More gun violence, related concerns about both foreign and domestic terrorism, and coverage of presidential candidates seemed to predominate. Even with the effects of climate change exacerbating the conditions that allow terrorism to take hold, some American politicians and pundits have suggested that it is wrong to give the climate conference any sort of priority if we face any other sort of threat. 

A great flaw in such thinking is that we can separate environmental issues from other issues. The failure to realize the interconnections within the web that sustains all life on this planet is what has gotten us to this critical last hour attempt to negotiate an agreement that might avert a global catastrophe. A similar failure, the failure to recognize the interconnections among various “issues”, is one of the greatest political obstacles to success.

Despite the increasingly obvious human toll of climate change, we have a habit of thought left over from the
twentieth century that continues to make concern for the environment a side issue. That leftover way of thinking separates concern for humankind from concern for the earth. A pinched perspective on life, perhaps a legacy of the Great Depression, gave us a sense in the last century that we could — and probably should — be concerned primarily for humankind without being concerned about the rest of creation. Given the false choice between concern for people and concern for “nature”, we chose concern for human welfare over concern for the great outdoors. (The latter, after all, would always be waiting for us when we wanted to take a break.) We developed a false dichotomy between human welfare and the welfare of other living things that not only was an intellectual error, but has resulted in the biggest threat ever to human beings around the world. Many of our politicians and pundits continue this error. 

This week’s Advent Gospel (Luke 3:1-6) turns to John the Baptist proclaiming a “baptism of repentance”.  John the Baptist isn’t calling for a simple confession of our sins or a change in government policies. He is calling for a deep, life-changing reorientation of our souls that results in righteousness, in lives aligned with God’s ways, not the ways of the marketplace or the political forum. Such a reorientation of our souls results in a strong grounding in reality, an immersion that restores our sense of wonder and our awareness of the interconnections among things. This restoration reveals the fallacies in the ways of thinking we are offered by so many of the loudest voices in our nation. 

Luke begins today’s Gospel passage with references to various political and religious leaders in order to set the events he is describing in history, to pin down the year when John began preaching. Yet we pay much more attention today to the words of John than we do to anything the people considered “historical figures” said or did. What endures today isn’t so much what the rulers thought or did; those loud voices of their time aren’t the ones that echo down through the centuries to the Church today. What is important to us as the second week of Advent begins is the single voice of John the Baptist in the wilderness.

We are preparing ourselves to once again bear witness to the Incarnation, to God becoming human, bridging the divide between heaven and earth and showing that divide to be less real than we had thought. One way to prepare ourselves for that Christmas witness is to learn to think past the paradigms and categories the loud voices of our time would have us accept as real. 

Everything is connected. Interpersonal violence in our homes and communities is connected to violence between competing factions within nations. These forms of violence are connected to violence between nations and violence to the biosphere. Violence to our biosphere results in droughts, floods, famine, and rising seas that produce refugees who need to go somewhere. Violence to our biosphere results in lack of access to food and water and living space that easily results in conflict. Everything is of one piece. A nation or world that solves problems at the point of a gun will never be able to restore a sustainable biosphere. 

Repent. Say no to the false choices we are offered. Refuse to listen to the loudest voices. Instead, listen to the quieter voices that call us to peace and restoration. Listen to the voices that matter in the long-term, the ones that prepare us to better hear and follow Jesus, the one who taught us to love of God and love our neighbors. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Advent Hope 2015

Advent is about waiting in hope. This time of year, the days are short in the northern hemisphere. Along with the darkness from the longer nights, we have days like today in Nebraska when clouds and fog make even the daytime darker than usual. Some days, new snow or thick fog makes everything seem quieter than normal. Advent calls us to an inward spiritual observance of what we might be experiencing outwardly and physically; Advent calls us to look for signs of hope, pieces of light sparkling in the midst of spiritual darkness, and to enter into spiritual quiet so we can listen for the sound of good news. 

In the Advent I Green Sprouts post three years ago, Doing the math in hope, I told about hearing Bill McKibben speak in Omaha as part of his Do the Math tour. McKibben’s primary message that night was this:

It’s simple math: we can burn less than 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide and stay below 2°C of warming — anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on earth. The only problem? Fossil fuel corporations now have 2,795 gigatons in their reserves, five times the safe amount. And they’re planning to burn it all — unless we rise up to stop them.

McKibben went on to talk about the then new campaign for institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry as a way for people to help address what our political leaders had been unwilling to address with any significant action. Divesting was one way of doing everything we can to change the trajectory of climate change by keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Divestment wouldn’t solve the problem, but it might be enough of a push to make a difference. 

Bill McKibben also said our precarious situation, while very discouraging, was also exciting because we were getting “nearer to the heart of things”. In that 2012 Advent I post, this was my reflection on the idea of getting nearer to the heart of things:

And we are indeed down to what is essential to survival; we are down to questions of meaning and questions about our priorities; we are down to questions about where our hearts lie when we face the finitude not only of our own lives but of our biosphere, our planet, and the way of life it has supported. Our search for hope in this seemingly hopeless situation leads us to a place of repentance and conversion: Are we willing to do what it takes to make hope possible?

I left Bill McKibben’s presentation thinking that the Episcopal Church needed to divest from fossil fuels, and a few months later found that other Episcopalians were thinking the same thing. We did not expect divestment to come easily. We were going forward from a position of hope and faith, knowing that we were doing what we needed to do even if we failed in our efforts. In the end, everything came together at this year’s General Convention to make it happen. 

After the General Convention of the Episcopal Church voted to divest major funds from fossil fuels and reinvest in clean energy this summer, it seemed to me that choosing to divest “was both a sign of our hope and a catalyst for future hope”. 

As I think about hope this Advent, I wonder at how quickly our efforts bore fruit. I give thanks that this small piece of the work before us went well. And I go back to the Advent questions I asked three years ago in light of the discouraging facts about climate change and what it will take for us to ensure a sustainable future for humankind: Where do our hearts lie? How do we hope when everything seems dark? Can we set aside lesser priorities of personal convenience and comfort in order to do what needs to be done for the greater common good both close to home and in corners of the globe about which we know very little? 

These 21st century questions are timeless Advent questions; the journey of the heart we take to repent and turn ourselves and the world around is an Advent journey. 

The beginning of this Advent season brings us to the important climate talks in Paris. There are good reasons to think that the best we can realistically expect from these talks are promises to limit future greenhouse gas emissions significantly but not enough to do more than delay the catastrophe. In everyday terms, we might say this is “the best we can hope for”. 

But there is also genuine hope. Genuine hope sees the darkness for what it is, but looks and listens for light and good news. There is genuine hope that hearts and minds will change, that the voices of the activists outside the talks will be heard, that the voice of the poorest people in the world will somehow be heard among these leaders of the nations, and that the voices of the oceans and the birds and endangered plants and animals will count for something. And there is genuine hope that if our leaders fail us yet again, we will find other ways to ensure that fossil fuels stay in the ground.

Pray for those gathered in Paris, that may have wisdom and courage and the ability to understand deeply what they are doing this week. Pray for those of us not gathered there, that we continue to speak and act in ways that bring genuine hope. Pray for hope and in hope.