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.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Living In Hope

For twelve days, we have immersed ourselves in the story of the Incarnation as we celebrate Christmas. We have been reminded of God’s love for this world and have heard about the light that shines in the darkness, and we have begun the secular new year. Both Christmas and the new year are times of hope. 

The series of blog posts begun here on the Green Sprouts page toward the end of Advent (Advent: Where Is Hope?, Truth and Hope, and The Present Reality) laid out some of the questions and facts to consider as we think about hope for this year and beyond. 

Our eerily warm weather of Advent is gone, replaced by a deep chill and some snow in Nebraska. Even people who much prefer warmer weather have noted that “winter is finally here”; we know that more normal weather patterns are a blessing in many ways, especially in an agricultural state such as ours. But as a reminder that the weather this week in my own backyard and global climate trends are two very different things, the 2014 official climate reports have begun to appear. Andrew Freedman reports on Mashable that the Japan Meteorological Agency has now released preliminary data showing 2014 to be the warmest year since their record-keeping began in 1891. Freedman’s post notes: 
Other studies, using data from ice cores, tree rings, corals and other so-called "proxy" data shows the planet has not been this warm in at least 4,000 years, while other data shows that the level of the main global warming gas has not been this high in all of human history.
In this rapidly warming world, how do we live as people who believe that the light will continue to shine in the darkness? How do we live as people of hope, and what kind of message of hope do we who are part of the Church, Christ’s body in the world, bring to the world in this time that is unlike any other humankind has experienced? 

The Christmas story teaches us that what we hope for may come to us looking very different from what we expected. The Savior comes to us as an infant born in a stable, his birth proclaimed by angels not to the civic or religious leaders but to shepherds out in the fields.

Authentic hope differs from expectation. Hope is closely tied to faith. In the case of global warming, our hope is tied to faith in a good and loving God who created a universe that is ultimately good. Probably the thing we hope for in the case of global warming is something we can’t even describe or imagine. But there are some things we can imagine, and there are some things we can hope for without pretending that the darkness is not there.

A family faced with the terminal illness of a loved one can be hopeful despite knowing that they will almost certainly lose that loved one fairly soon. They can hope for a holy death for their loved one, a peaceful and relatively pain-free time with loving care. Similarly, we can hope in the years ahead to live holy lives, to love God and love our sisters and brothers with whom we share this planet. We can hope to care for God’s Creation, to care for the animals and plants whose lives are woven together with ours, grieving when they no longer exist and caring for those that remain.

We have seen in these posts that racism, greed, and violence are ingredients of our failure to act. These ancient problems need our attention now more than ever. Even as we work to mitigate or slow down global warming, we need to work harder than ever to end these evils and to tend to those who suffer the most from them. We need to pay attention to those suffering worst and first from the effects of global warming and alleviate suffering.

Hope that we might live holy lives in the midst of extreme difficulties includes a hope that we live lives of integrity and honesty. Even as we acknowledge the reality of climate change, we are called to be brave and creative and wise in working to mitigate its effects and give humankind its best shot at the future. We in the Church must put this work at the top of our agendas, realizing that many of the programs and concerns that were comfortable in the 20th century no longer can have priority this century. Following Christ must take precedence over following comfortable patterns.

As this Christmas draws to a close, we could continue business as usual, turning our backs on the light and wandering farther and farther into the darkness. or we can keep Christmas hope in our hearts and go out into the world to share the light of the incarnate Word.

Episcopalians have an opportunity right now to do something toward reorganizing our priorities. See the Nuray Love Parish’s Churchworks post One Thing All Episcopalians Must Consider by January 7th to find out how to spend a couple of minutes by January to encourage a greater priority for creation care in the proposed budget for TEC. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Present Reality

Genuine hope is anchored in the truth. Getting a handle on where we are with regards to both the science and the politics of climate change is essential to the task of finding genuine hope that is grounded in an acceptance of the truth of our situation rather than in its denial. However, gaining a sense of where we can ground our hope is difficult when the truth of our situation is constantly being revised as more of the picture is revealed.

Our knowledge about the extent and speed of climate change and its effects changes with each new piece of data. We have a general picture of what is happening, but specific pieces of that picture change as new data are gathered and feedback loops are discovered. People who follow news about our changing climate have a steady stream of new information to digest, and often that new information comes with the words “sooner than expected” or “worse than predicted”.

Before moving on to some reflection in the fourth post of this series about how we best live as followers of Jesus at this time, then, let’s look at a snapshot of a couple of pieces of what has happened in the past couple of weeks.

Earlier this month, the COP20 climate conference was held in Lima, Peru. This gathering of the parties involved in the United Nations climate negotiations was meant to create a framework for agreement on a strong climate treaty when the parties meet in Paris in a year. Getting a good climate treaty from the Paris meeting has been talked about as a sort of last best hope for averting climate disaster. The meeting in Lima left the door open for that, but does not at all guarantee that the Paris conference will succeed. Critics of the talks have said that the proposals in Lima were too weak: while cutting greenhouse gas emissions to any extent is a good thing, the sorts of cuts that are expected to come out of the Paris negotiations may well be too little too late.

Writing in The Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg reports that some climate campaigners claim that the outcome of the Lima meeting will be a 4℃ rise in global temperatures rather than the generally accepted limit of two degrees above preindustrial levels. Eric Holthaus writes A Single Word in the Peru Climate Negotiations Undermines the Entire Thing. That word is the change of ‘shall’ to ‘may’ in order to get more nations to agree to the section about international oversight of individual nations’ emissions reductions plans.

Moreover, some question whether the 2℃ goal is a good enough target given recent observations of what is already happening with less than two degrees temperature rise. (See 3.6 Degrees of Uncertainty posted by the New York Times on December 15.) It was thought that the two degree threshold would prevent the loss of the Greenland ice sheet, but we know now that that is not the case. Reports this month say that there is a much greater risk of the Greenland ice sheet melting than earlier computer models had indicated. (See Miguel Llanos’s report for NBC News about two new studies that question these models.) 

As 2014 comes to a close, it is clear that this will probably go on record as the warmest year since record-keeping began. Atmospheric carbon dioxide continues to rise. And while more leaders around the world are beginning to talk about preventing catastrophic climate change, our actions continue to drag behind the rhetoric. 

Given this snapshot of the scientific and political realities in the news this month, what should we do as followers of Jesus? How should we live? And what does hope look like? 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Truth and Hope

Two essays have spoken strongly to me this season as I've struggled in the midst of Advent to absorb new information and analysis about global warming and to think about recent political responses to climate change.

It’s the End of the World As We Know It  looks at some of the realities of climate change and concludes that “it's time to accept our impending demise” and let go of  “the charade that things might improve”. The author is Randy Malamud, Regents’ Professor of English at Georgia State University. 

Professor Malamud finds a bright spot in the opportunity to engage in the sort of self-reflection that has produced great literature as other civilizations declined. He writes:
As an English professor, I find it exciting to consider the possibilities for a new voice, a new style, a new writerly consciousness that may accompany and chronicle the winding down of our sound and fury.
For those who are spiritually grounded this Advent season and ready to take an honest look at the needs of the world, this essay is a wonderful help to processing some of the realities of climate change.

Naomi Klein’s December 12 essay for The Nation entitled Why #BlackLivesMatter Should Transform the Climate Debate  suggests that part of the reason we find ourselves in this sobering situation is that “thinly veiled notions of racial superiority have informed every aspect of the non-response to climate change so far.” The amount of warming found to be “acceptable” to wealthier nations is an amount that will cause great hardship for poorer nations. 

She shares this story about the way westerners tend to think about global warming:
I recently had occasion to meet a leading Belgian meteorologist who makes a point of speaking about climate change in her weather reports. But, she told me, her viewers remain unmoved. "People here think that with global warming, the weather in Brussels will be more like Bordeaux—and they are happy about that." On one level, that's understandable, particularly as temperatures drop in northern countries. But global warming won't just make Brussels more like Bordeaux, it will make Haiti more like Hades. And it's not possible to be cheerful about the former without, at the very least, being actively indifferent to the latter.

Naomi Klein’s hope in all of this is that the losses of people in the less developed parts of the world can “if we are willing to acknowledge them, willing to fully grieve them, have the power to help us grow a new and safer world. Indeed, they must.”

Conversations in the faith community around climate change caused by global warming often avoid meeting the issues raised in these two essays. We want to offer hope to people, and so we emphasize possible solutions and leave an impression that we can avoid catastrophic climate change by making some simple changes that won’t change our own lives much. We also tend to talk about leaving a better world for “our grandchildren”, ignoring both the children and adults whose lives have already been lost or made very difficult by our inaction, and also ignoring the risks many of us already alive and relatively unaffected by climate change right now will face in years ahead. 

We Christians believe the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome the light. We are people of hope, believers in resurrection. But we are also followers of the truth. Genuine hope is grounded not in denial of reality, but in truth. 

The truth includes the scientific facts along with the experiences of people who have already suffered loss as a result of severe weather, drought, rising seas, and wildfires. 

There is hope that human beings will be our best selves as we face the reality of global warming. There is hope that we will hear the voices of people who have not been heard, will grieve the losses of our sisters and brothers, will be open to hearing and understanding the scientists, and will be willing to work together to mitigate as much as possible the global suffering caused by a global problem.

These essays suggest to me that part of our spiritual challenge now and in years ahead is to allow ourselves to experience discomfort in conversations, to be present with those who are beginning to absorb the truth of our situation, and to be so deeply grounded in our faith that we have the courage and grace to speak the truth even when we are surrounded by people who would rather not think about what is happening. 

We are in our present situation in part because of our failure to love our global neighbors as we love ourselves. Giving the needs of others as high a priority as our own needs would in the end benefit us as well. Either the desire to be better followers of Jesus’s great commandment or the desire to protect ourselves would be reason enough to pay more attention to global warming and its causes and effects and, most of all, to work diligently for a just and peaceful world.

But knowing that our present situation is worse than we are usually willing to acknowledge, we have even more reason to refuse to support violence and injustice and instead to join together to support one another and treat one another well. If we are entering a period of collapse or decline, we have the opportunity to choose to do that in a way that resonates with the best of humanity’s values instead of in way that results in chaos, violence, and even more suffering and ruin. We can live through this as followers of Christ or as unrepentant sinners concerned only with our own selfish mere existence.

This is the second in a four part series of posts about looking for hope in Advent 2014. The first, Advent: Where Is Hope, is some personal reflection on journeying through Advent against a background of climate-related news and events. The next post after this one will be some reflection on the COP20 conference in Lima along with recent news about Arctic ice, and the final post will be centered on the question: “How then should we live?” as followers of Jesus in this century.

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.