Monday, December 15, 2014

Advent: Where Is Hope?

Advent has stunned me this year. The words of the prophets that we read during this season are more sobering than usual because they resonate so easily with what we are experiencing in our nation. News stories about the CIA’s use of torture and about the realities of racial injustice echo the most somber words of the prophets. Gun violence continues. A huge storm battered the San Francisco bay area, a big nor’easter hit the northeastern United States, and a “bombageddon” event pounded the northern part of the UK with high winds and high seas.

Here in Nebraska, we are just now returning to more normal December weather after breaking some records for high low temperatures, making it feel more like early spring than like December. There is little doubt that 2014 will go on record as the warmest year globally in recorded history.

But what has stunned me has not been the grim news reports nor the out-of-sync weather. What has stunned me is experiencing all of this against the backdrop of current climate news and analysis that at best might deepen our awareness of the need to repent of our blindness to injustice and cruelty along with plain old selfishness, and at worst might tempt us to a level of despair that keeps us from seeing the light that shines in the darkness and is never overcome.

I’ve not been blogging during Advent, and that has at least as much to do with the task of processing all of these things that have happened since Thanksgiving as much as it does with the busyness of the season or other duties. Where the events of this Advent have taken me so far is not easy for me to share, and I have wanted time to think things through and pray about them before beginning to write.

The Plan

Along with today’s post, the plan is to share this Advent reflection in three more posts:

The next post discusses two excellent essays and how they have clarified and nudged my own thinking: It’s the End of the World As We Know It by Randy Malamud, and Why #BlackLivesMatter Should Transform the Climate Debate from Naomi Klein writing in The Nation.

A post about some of the results from last week’s UN climate talks in Lima, along with today’s news that current models may have significantly underestimated the risk to Greenland’s ice sheet as global warming continues follows. The urgency of the latter underscores the disappointment in the former.

Finally, a look at the question: “How, then, should we live?” as followers of Jesus in this century brings us to speculation about where true hope lies for those of us who believe that the light shines in the darkness and will not be overcome.

An Unusual Disconnect from the Winter Holiday

An intentional observation of Advent is important to me. I love the quiet, the anticipation, the reflections on Christ’s coming that brings past, present, and future together in an eternal now, our custom of lighting special candles in the darkness of December, and Advent music. However, I also have a love of the winter holiday aspect of this time of year that goes back to childhood, when I was blessed to live in a snowy climate in an era when children had time and permission to go out and play in the snow. Snowball fights and snow forts, sledding, skating, and creating snowmen made the gray winter days in northeast Ohio fun. Despite despising driving in the snow, winter still  equals fun in my mind. The joys of a beautiful snowfall, coming indoors to warmth and maybe some cookies and hot chocolate, and many of the secular Christmas songs  that revolve around a winter solstice festival delight me. While I observe Advent and anticipate the holy wonder of the Feast of the Incarnation, I also enjoy the fun we bring into these dark weeks to warm us and make things seem brighter.

I was surprised, then, a couple of weeks ago as Bing Crosby sang White Christmas in the background and I stood at my kitchen window watching birds and animals on our bare lawn to feel a deep sadness instead of joy. I’ve celebrated Christmas without any hints of snow before, as our family lived in New Zealand in the early 1980’s, so this wasn’t just missing the experience of typical midwestern wintry weather in December. It was an awareness that there’s a good chance that whatever future Christmases I have in Nebraska are as likely to be green and above freezing as they are white with snow. I was glimpsing and pre-grieving the loss of the world as I have known and experienced it. Something I have loved is disappearing.

This Sunday, I started out driving to church on a foggy, rainy morning with temperatures warm enough that people were using the word “muggy” to describe the weather in Omaha. I was happy to know that the temperature was well above freezing and there was no worry about possibly icy streets. But I also had the UN climate talks on my mind. I had followed news of the talks until they ended at a late bedtime, and woke up remembering that it seemed as if another opportunity to take significant action on global warming had been squandered. Still, I was surprised at my reaction when I turned on the car radio and heard Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride. Driving along on a muggy December day in Omaha with the music bringing back memories of more typical winter days made our greater loss seem more real. Sleigh Ride isn’t the sort of song that brings tears to our eyes, but it did just that to me Sunday morning.

This evening the north wind is howling, and parts of Nebraska had snow today. We may settle into some more typical winter weather for a bit, or we may end up with a warmer than normal winter. We are, after all, only a small part of the world, and global warming can bring changes in weather patterns that could bring us some exceptionally large snowfalls in coming weeks. (Buffalo, New York, got a good dose of that a few weeks ago.) But we know where we are headed, that some changes are here to stay, and that a certain amount of global warming not only has already occurred but also is going to continue.

Next post we consider two essays that speak to our situation this Advent: one is an honest and clear-eyed look at our situation and its implications, and one looks at why those of us who are white people living in the United States or Europe and are deeply concerned about global warming seem to be outnumbered by people around us who don’t give it much thought.

Boston Pops: Sleigh Ride

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving: Gratitude with Eyes Open

I'm reposting this Thanksgiving reflection from last year. As climate change and the world's response to it unfolds, the spiritual practice of gratitude is needed more than ever to inoculate us against despair. At the same time, pausing to find things for which we are grateful and express that gratitude through prayer and through sharing with one another keeps us mindful of the beauty and wonder of all that stands to be lost.

Thanksgiving Day in and of itself is a celebration of a spiritual response to everything in God’s creation that gives us life and joy. Despite the considerable cultural and commercial baggage it has picked up over the years, at its heart an annual day set aside for an entire nation to express gratitude is a great spiritual gift. Whether by design or by accident, this national holiday calls us to an essential spiritual practice. Some years our hearts are full of joy on the fourth Thursday of November and the gratitude comes easily; other years it falls at a less joyful point of our lives and we have to be very intentional to discover what can move us to gratitude even when we are caught up in grief or troubles. Giving thanks when things are going well and life is a delight is important, but developing the habit of giving thanks in more difficult times is a great spiritual gift to ourselves and those around us. 

While an annual call to give thanks is good, a daily practice of gratitude can transform our lives. The simple daily habit of naming five or ten things for which we are grateful changes us over time. The practice of gratitude requires us to notice bits of goodness, joy, or hope even in times when we might overlook those little bits. That noticing makes the dark times less dark and lets in a little light just when we need it most. 

For people who pay attention to climate change and pollution and their effects on living things, there is plenty to tempt us to despair. Yet those who grieve the passing of species and ecosystems most deeply are those who have loved these most deeply. Even as we grieve and wonder how best to live in this changing world, we continue to notice and treasure the gifts of God’s creation: the sky, the earth itself, the seas and lakes and rivers, and all the animals and plants that fill them. The living things whose increasing fragility we grieve the most are the very things that allow a glimpse of goodness, joy, or hope that can save us from our own despair. A daily practice of gratitude opens our hearts in a way that inoculates us against paralyzing despair. 

Both the cultivation of grateful hearts and the cultivation of awareness of our environmental problems are key practices for Christians at this point in history. Seeing and naming the world’s brokenness in terms of injustice, poverty, and hatred has always been an essential part of living the Christian life with integrity, and these aspects of the world’s brokenness in this century are intertwined with environmental degradation and the impacts of climate change. Accordingly, looking as fully as possible at the reality of our warming planet, a reality that can be difficult to acknowledge and perhaps impossible for us to fully comprehend, is an essential task for Christians today. But the practice of gratitude, the practice of intentionally looking for and recognizing the things both great and small that continue to bring us life and joy, is equally essential to the Christian life. Gratitude keeps us from being consumed with despair, but at the same time it keeps us from denying the value of what is being lost. We continue to love creation even as we grieve the loss of so much of what we loved; we continue to grieve loss after loss even as we continue to be grateful for all that we have loved. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Tithing Mint In a Sweltering Room Full of Elephants

‘But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practised, without neglecting the others.’ (Luke 11:42)

Only halfway through the week, the week’s headlines have already included stories such as these:

Climate change caused by global warming is affecting people around the world. As warming increases, economic disruptions and other risks for people increase. Extinction rates for entire species are accelerating, too, as a result of climate change, habitat loss, and other factors.

With all of this going on, this verse from today’s Daily Office Gospel lesson (Luke 11:37-52) seems to speak to Christians today as much as it did to the Pharisees to whom Jesus was speaking. If we put all our energy into the usual concerns of parishes and dioceses — worship details, finance, attendance, building maintenance — and neglect something that affects our neighbors and God’s creation as much as global warming does, we are neglecting justice and the love of God. Jesus says we need to practice justice and love of God without neglecting our other duties. 

We might begin to broaden our focus from our equivalent of tithing herbs to this huge issue that affects all of us by simply naming it. Global warming is the proverbial elephant in the room. It is affecting or will affect every aspect of our lives, and yet we often pretend it isn’t there. Preachers say they don’t dare mention it in their congregations. Even in parishes and dioceses that do some intentional work to be “greener” or even address climate change in some way, it often remains unnamed and neglected when vestries and committees meet to plan for the future, as if global warming weren’t going to change anything close to home. And as its effects in a variety of locations become more apparent, our failure to name it and talk about it begins to look less like our ignoring one elephant in the room and more like being in a very warm room full of elephants we are ignoring. 

When we ignore global warming, we neglect the people suffering now and in coming months and years along with neglecting the love of God through our neglect of God’s creation. Powerful people with lots of money to influence politicians and the media have managed to politicize this issue and sow doubt about the well-documented scientific research. By doing this, they have made talking about climate change caused by global warming nearly a taboo subject. This makes it easy for us to retreat into our usual institutional concerns in the church and leave the topic out of our conservations, our sermons, and often even our outreach and social justice work. 

Woe to us if we allow our neglect of justice and neglect of the love of God in a warming world to continue!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A New Thing

At the 147th Annual Council of the Diocese of Nebraska in Scottsbluff last Saturday, we passed a resolution calling on the Episcopal Church Pension Fund and the Episcopal Church Endowment Fund to divest from the fossil fuel industry and reinvest funds in the clean energy sector. Between now and General Convention, other dioceses are expected to offer resolutions about divestment from the fossil fuel industry.
The theme of our Annual Council was “Behold, I am doing a new thing!” The people of the Diocese of Nebraska showed that we are indeed open to something new. In response to a global warming crisis that is unlike anything humankind has ever faced, a crisis that makes the future of humankind itself uncertain, we are willing to imagine a different world. We are willing to imagine a world in which we no longer burn fossil fuels to create energy, a world in which we instead harness the energy of the wind and the sun. We are willing to imagine a world in which we mitigate climate change resulting from global warming rather than continuing to accelerate global warming. With faith and hope, the people of the 147th Annual Council were willing to think about the reality of global warming and do something in response. 

The resolution itself outlined two moral reasons and two financial reasons to divest from the fossil fuel industry and reinvest in the clean energy sector. In presenting the resolution, I reviewed the resolution and then shared some of my own some of my deeper personal reasons for working hard for the church to address climate change in a significant way. Here is an excerpt:
First are the justice issues arising from climate change and Jesus’ straightforward commandments to serve the poor. Some of the world’s poorest people are being affected first and worst by climate change — people in Pacific Island nations like Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands who are trying to figure out where they can go as their islands disappear; people in many places around the world who rely on traditional subsistence farming who no longer know when to plant and harvest because seasonal weather patterns have been disrupted by climate change; people in traditional Arctic villages built on permafrost — or what used to be permafrost — losing their homes and often their way of life, their culture and language; and all those affected by increasing tropical diseases, flooding, decreased water supplies as glaciers shrink or disappear, and so forth. 
Second is personal grief over the loss of familiar plants, birds, and trees. As a child, I first experienced the Holy in nature, and I still feel a special nearness to God when I feel close to God’s sacred creation. The loss of these things breaks my heart. 
Third is the knowledge that I can only begin to really comprehend of two things: first, what I know scientists tell us we will all face — us, our children, and whatever generations might come after — as global warming shoots beyond 2 degrees Celsius and goes on to 4 degrees or even 6 degrees warming, and what I know political and military analysts tell us about the breakdown of security around the world that would accompany these changes; and second, the knowledge that we — governments and industries and other institutions around the world — are failing to do much of anything right now to stop this. This isn’t hard to understand because the information isn’t there; it’s hard to understand because it is too terrible to contemplate. Somehow that has brought us to a point of inaction rather than action.
One reason we are reluctant to act significantly is that we are scared of facing the reality. Have you noticed how little we hear about global warming from politicians and pundits, or from pulpits, or even from one another in conversations? Talking about climate change is a big social taboo. One reason we sometimes get angry or annoyed with people like me who talk about such things is that we are all frightened of what is unfolding and perhaps a little ashamed at the things we have done or left undone that helped get us to this point. Along with that is that resistance to change that Mike Wagner talked about yesterday.
 At one point, Mike talked about the gap between the rate of cultural change and the rate of change most of us can readily accept. But what we needed to understand about Daniel’s ability to embrace change, he said, was that Daniel understood “You’ll be in Babylon in two weeks.” 
Graphs of carbon emissions and warming global temperatures show a similar shape to each other and a similar accelerated rate of change to those graphs of cultural change that Mike discussed. So far, the gap between those curves and a line showing our response to the global warming crisis has done nothing but increase. We won’t be in Babylon in two weeks, but we already see the beginnings of the change, and we will be in a whole new world by the middle of this century or perhaps as soon as 2030 — 16 years from now — if we continue to do too little too late. 
A church that leads in recognizing the moral issues involved in climate change and responding in a big way to this crisis — a crisis that is as much a spiritual crisis as a physical crisis — is a church that will continue to live and minister to God’s people in a changing world. I ask you to be that church and vote in favor of this resolution. 
I ask your prayers for other dioceses that will be looking at divestment and reinvestment between now and General Convention in 2015. Please pray for those of us working on this issue, that we might have the courage to work for a strong resolution at General Convention, the wisdom to do that work well, and hope to sustain us as we contemplate this issue.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

St. Francis and the Birds: Lament

One of the most beloved stories about St. Francis is the story of Francis preaching to the birds. Francis reminded the birds of the gifts they received from God and exhorted them to express their gratitude by praising God. At the conclusion of his sermon, the birds bowed their heads to the ground and then sang to praise God.

The sights and sounds of birds give us much joy and remind us of the gift of beauty and wonder God has given us through the diversity of God’s good creation. This year we observe St. Francis Day not long after the Audubon Society’s release of their Birds and Climate Change report. This report tells us that about half the birds in the United States and Canada are in danger of losing more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080.

This video summarizes some of the report’s findings:

We know the birds aren’t the only living things in trouble. People are endangered by climate change, too; young walruses endangered by stampeding as great numbers of walruses gather on beaches because there are few ice floes on which they can rest have been in the news recently; and articles and books about the Sixth Extinction — see, for example, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History — describe the current unprecedented rapid rate of species extinction of both animals and plants.

St. Francis taught us compassion for all living things. Such compassion leaves us vulnerable to heartbreak and grief as we contemplate the loss of our familiar birds or realize we are witnessing one of the planet’s few eras of tremendous loss of species in a relatively short time. How might we respond to such loss in the spirit of St. Francis?


Being good stewards of God’s creation, including advocacy for the people and other living things who are suffering first and worst from climate change, is an important part of our response as people of faith to the climate crisis. Preparing ourselves to minister to the spiritual and physical needs of people affected by climate change, whether they be people directly affected by natural disasters or people simply having trouble processing the great changes occurring in the world, is also an important task for the church. 

Along with those actions, though, an honest response to the climate crisis and the loss of so much in our biosphere requires us to relearn the practice of lament. The Psalms teach us how to do this: bring our sorrows, our grief, our complaint out loud to God while acknowledging our ongoing faith that God is somewhere in all of this and and our belief in a God whose goodness and lovingkindness are steadfast even in the worst of times. 

I’d love to see people with gifts for leading liturgy help us engage in public lament. For now, I’ll be using this space from time to time to highlight some of the losses, some of the heartbreak, sorrow, and grief, that might call us to respond with lament. Just as allowing ourselves to publicly mourn the loss of a loved one helps us both realize the depth of our loss and begin to move on, so the practice of lament might help us be more conscious of our emotional and spiritual response to the losses we are suffering collectively and help us be better prepared for the work of stewardship, advocacy, and ministry as the climate crisis continues to unfold.

Lamenting the immanent loss of some of our bird companions is a place to begin the work of lament.

Giotto: St. Francis Preaches to the Birds

Monday, September 22, 2014

Marching to Nineveh

In churches where yesterday’s Old Testament lesson was the last part of the Book of Jonah (Jonah 3:10-4:11), we heard about Jonah’s anger at God’s mercy to the Ninevites, who had listened to the message Jonah brought them from God and had repented. Jonah gets angry all over again when a bush God sent to give Jonah some shade dies after a day. God points out to Jonah that he is concerned about a single bush and yet begrudges God’s mercy to the people of Nineveh: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and went thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” 

Yesterday was also the day of the huge People’s Climate March in New York City. Smaller marches and rallies gathered around the world in support. The People’s Climate March was timed to occur as participants began gathering for a UN Climate Summit, and a theme of the estimated 400,000 marchers was that inaction on climate change is unacceptable. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called world leaders to gather this week in order to build momentum toward a significant agreement at next year’s climate conference in Paris.

While the first part of the story of Jonah — his running away from God that results in his spending three days in the belly of a whale — is perhaps the most well-known part of the story, what happens when Jonah obeys God and goes to Nineveh to proclaim, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4) is a classic story about human nature. As I heard this read yesterday morning with the People’s Climate March and my many friends taking part in it on my mind and in my heart, I became aware of some places where the story of Jonah and the story of the climate march intersect. These intersections can help us as Christians formulate our response to climate change.

Proclaiming the truth

Many of the people marching yesterday have been speaking and writing about climate change for years. No matter how long they have been at it, though, a principal purpose of bringing together a large and diverse crowd of people around the issue was to raise awareness of climate change and its effects on people. The march had an environmental justice focus that brought together people from a variety of sectors — indigenous people, people of faith, union members, people who work for affordable housing, people from island nations, Appalachia, and our own Nebraska sandhills — who brought their own messages about the harmful effects of climate change on particular groups of people.

Jonah resisted telling the truth, and we as a society have been slow to tell the truth about climate change. Media Matters reported that the “Sunday news shows on NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and Fox failed to cover the People's Climate March”; coverage of climate change in general has been dismal in the mainstream American press. Unlike too many news reporters and political leaders, the people marching yesterday were there to proclaim the truth; they were there to be heard.

Repentance and reconciliation

When the Ninevites hear Jonah’s message and repent, Jonah is angry because he doesn’t think they deserve God’s grace. Given that God’s grace got Jonah out of the belly of the whale, his resentment of the Ninevites seems especially petty.

Last Friday, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori along with the heads for the Anglican Church of Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the  Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, issued a pastoral message on climate change. In it, the Bishops encourage us to leave behind our tendency to divide into factions and point fingers at one another, and instead to work toward reconciliation: 
Moreover, we need not surrender to political ideologies and other modern mythologies that would divide us into partisan factions — deserving and undeserving, powerless victims and godless oppressors. In Christ we have the promise of a life where God has reconciled the human community. In Christ God sets us free from the captivity of blaming and shaming. God liberates us for shared endeavors where we find each other at our best.
Encouraging reconciliation, and especially rejoicing as more and more people repent of our contributions to climate change and try to change our ways, is one of the gifts we Christians can offer the world at this time. Healing ourselves and learning to love one another is an essential piece of healing the planet. Politics as usual will not get us where we need to go.

Divestment and reinvestment

Divestment from the fossil fuel industry and reinvestment in clean energy would give the church an opportunity to practice repentance for our contributions to climate change and to lead the way to a better future for all living things. This weekend we learned that the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation — the philanthropic foundation for a family whose wealth originated with oil — is joining the divestment movement.

Resolutions will be introduced at several diocesan annual councils this fall calling on the Episcopal Church Pension Fund and the Episcopal Church Endowment Fund to divest from the fossil fuel industry. These resolutions lay the groundwork for an effort to bring the issue to General Convention in 2015. (I’ve proposed a divestment and reinvestment resolution for consideration at the Diocese of Nebraska’s Annual Council.)

God told Jonah that his concern about the death of one plant should extend to the entire population of Nineveh, both people and animals. When we Christians respond to climate change through truth-telling and acts of repentance and reconciliation, we will help save the lives of people and all other living things all over the world. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

New Questions for a New Time

Loaves and Fishes Revisited

As greenhouse gas emissions and global warming increase exponentially, it becomes more obvious each day that treating this challenge as just another social or political issue is not only ineffective, but dangerously distracting. We know we can’t continue business as usual in many areas of our lives if we are to mitigate global warming; why would we think that the usual paradigms to effect change would be appropriate in this case?

In particular, what should the church do to respond to global warming and other forms of environmental degradation? Should we do a religiously informed version of what other environmental activists do to advocate for climate stability and cleaner air and water, or are we called to do something different?

This week’s Sunday Gospel passage has brought me back to a persistent feeling I have that the church’s call in the face of pressing environmental concerns needs to be very different in kind from what other environmentalists are doing. Perhaps we need to look beyond dressing up the talking points or action steps of other groups with theological language and do something unique that might better match the uniqueness of this moment in human history and the uniqueness of the church as the Body of Christ.

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson is Matthew’s version of the story of the loaves and the fishes (Matthew 14:13-21) At the end of January, I posted a reflection on John’s version of the story. In John’s version, Jesus asks the disciples where they will find something for the crowd to eat, and while the disciples have a conversation about all the reasons it can’t be done, a boy offers the five barley loaves and two fish that he has. That post suggested that offering whatever we have in faith can have surprising results. The many grassroots efforts to address climate change may not look like much compared to the influence of the fossil fuel industry, and we can give lots of reasons to think they are not sufficient to make a significant difference, but when we offer these efforts in faith, they can do more than we can imagine they can do.

But Matthew’s version is different; it adds a different twist that makes it about more than having faith that even our small efforts can make a difference. This version starts with the disciples being proactive about feeding the crowd. They realize that people will start getting hungry soon, and they very sensibly suggest to Jesus that he send the crowd away so people can go into the villages and buy some food. They aren’t stumped about how to make sure no one goes hungry: Jesus simply needs to break up the gathering so people can go off and buy some food. But Jesus says they don’t have to go away. The way this situation would usually be handled is not necessarily the best approach. After all, this is not just any gathering with just any teacher; this is a gathering of people wanting to be with Jesus. So Jesus says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

It’s as if Jesus says, “Don’t send them away. Think outside of the box; come up with a new solution for a new kind of situation.” And when the disciples can’t think of a different solution, Jesus asks for what they have and shows them something very new: the blessing, breaking, and distribution of the bread to feed a crowd of people who came hungry for something only Jesus could give them.

What people outside of faith communities are doing to address climate change and pollution are often very sensible projects bent on changing government policies or encouraging conservation or advocating for environmental justice. They are sensible and proactive approaches, often the same approaches that activists have found successful to effect change in other areas. But global warming in particular is a new problem unlike any other we have ever faced. And the church is different in kind from any other type of institution. Put those two things together, and it seems to resonate with Jesus saying, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” It sounds like, “You don’t need to rely on old paradigms to effect change; figure out something different.” Perhaps we are called to figure out something that looks like Jesus blessing, breaking, and distributing something we already have.

These are the questions for prayer, reflection, and discussion that have risen up for me in light of this Gospel text: What do we as the church have to offer? How do we offer it to Christ so that people can be fed what we need here and now, in this world where we face a very real threat to life on this planet unlike any other humankind has ever faced? How do we offer the church’s unique gifts so Christ can use them to meet the unique needs of this point in human history?

I invite others to sit with these questions with me. Sitting prayerfully and openly with these difficult questions in this nearly unthinkable situation may be the first step of doing what God calls us to do in this time.