Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter Hope and Joy

 Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

I’m writing this after participating in the joyful celebration of the Great Vigil of Easter at Church of the Resurrection in Omaha this evening. Earlier today, I spent a couple of hours helping to staff Nebraska Interfaith Power and Light’s table at the Omaha Earth Day celebration. Meanwhile, along with posts about Easter celebrations and reflections on the end of Holy Week and the beginning of Easter, my Facebook feed has been full of the news that the State Department announced a delay in a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline permit. The delay is at least in part due to a case Nebraska landowners brought against the pipeline that is now going to the Nebraska Supreme Court.

Last April, Easter was on March 31. The post I wrote on the blog that week talked about hope in the face of despair. Along with the celebration of Easter, the occasion for this reflection about hope was a planning meeting is to help pipeline opponents be well-prepared to testify at the State Department hearings later in the month. That was a year ago; the pipeline permit has still not been approved, and now we know there will be another delay in a decision. This is good news that brings hope with it. With that in mind, I hope you enjoy reading the post below from a year ago expressing hope in our ability to stop the pipeline despite incredible odds being against us.

Easter Week: Mistaken Identity, Keystone XL Pipeline, and Alleluias

In the Gospel lesson for the Tuesday in Easter Week (John 20:11-18), Mary Magdalene is so caught up in her grief over Jesus’ death and her despair over the disappearance of his body that when she turns around and sees Jesus, she doesn’t recognize him. Instead, she mistakes him for the gardener. She comes out of her grief and despair enough to see what is right before her eyes when she responds to hearing the risen Jesus call her by name.

We can get so deeply into grief and despair that we miss signs of hope that are right in front of us. Just as the mismatch between the sorts of hopes and expectations Mary Magdalene had imagined and the reality of Jesus’ resurrection led her initially to fail to recognize the wonderful reality standing before her, the mismatch between our imagined expectations and a wonderful reality can keep us from recognizing that reality even when it is unfolding. Those of us who pay attention to the degradation of the earth and particularly to the discouraging math of global warming find ourselves at times grieving the plants, animals, eco-systems, and way of life we know and love that are beginning to disappear or change, and we can feel despair when we see the enormity of the challenges we face compared to the lack of political will to do enough soon enough to make much of a difference to a our future.

One of the many joys of Easter in our tradition is the restoration of the alleluias that disappear during the somber Lenten season. Some parishes do a sort of ceremony of burying the alleluias on Ash Wednesday to help children grasp something of our Lenten practices. When Lent ends, our alleluias at the fraction and at the dismissal bring notes of joy and hope and renewed energy that can remain with us as we go into the week to love and serve Christ.

Most of us experience the return of the alleluias as a welcome return to a spiritual norm of joy, while others, especially in times when we have faced a great loss or difficult challenges, when we are grieving or in despair, may find ourselves more in tune with the quieter but no less faithful wilderness walk of Lent. But Easter comes along whether or not we are ready for it, even when we are so deeply into grief or despair that we can’t imagine finding hope or joy again.

Yesterday evening I attended one of the planning meetings for people opposed to TransCanada being given a permit to build the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to transport Alberta tar sands through the central United States, including Nebraska, to Gulf Coast refineries. The purpose of these planning meetings is to help pipeline opponents be well-prepared to testify at the State Department hearings scheduled to be held at the Heartland Event Center in Grand Island on April 18.  The pipeline fighters face huge odds given the money and political power of the oil industry. It’s one of those daunting challenges that could make the alleluias ring hollow.

And yet when I listened to leaders from the Sierra Club and Bold Nebraska , and when I heard the discussion by those who plan to be at the hearings either to testify against the permit or to support those testifying against it, it felt like an alleluia response. We know that grassroots opposition to the pipeline has delayed its construction so far. We know that landowners, environmental activists, people of faith, and others will keep fighting the construction of this pipeline and the expanded mining of the Alberta tar sands. There is something very good and life-giving here.

Even if President Obama denies the permit to build this pipeline, the challenge of keeping greenhouse gas emissions to a level that gives us a chance of a sustainable future is a huge challenge. If our expectations and hopes are of a future that resembles today’s business as usual, we may not recognize whatever signs of a realistic hope we might encounter. That doesn’t mean that hope isn’t there; it doesn’t mean that grief and despair are the only valid responses to our situation.

When Bill McKibben’s Do the Math tour visited Omaha, he said that he became discouraged at first when people pointed out that he was involved in a David and Goliath situation, but then he remembered how that story ends. Easter tells us the end of the story, and it calls for an alleluia response.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

For another dose of hope, come to Nebraska Interfaith Power and Light's conference on religious environmental work next Saturday at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln. The theme is Creation Care for Congregations. More information and online registration is available on the Nebraska IPL website.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday: Grief, Compassion, and Hope

Our Good Friday liturgy helps us bear and work through the weight of grief that we experience as we listen to the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. It is one point in the church year when profound grief is acknowledged and expected, even as we live in the knowledge of the Easter story and anticipation of a joyful celebration of the resurrection.

The grief we experience when we think of Christ, God Incarnate, on the cross is an elemental grief that contains all our other particular forms of grief. What we say and do on Good Friday in response to the Passion Gospel can help us find our way through our grief for the living things on our warming planet and can help us form and sustain a holy, healthy response to climate change.

For people paying attention to what is happening, the beauty of springtime can be bittersweet as we stand to lose 25-50% of species this century from habitat destruction, pollution, and global warming and ocean acidification. (See the book The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert for a good overview of the situation; a short and clear discussion is in this post from Dr. Jeff Masters.) Not knowing how much longer the flowers, trees, and birds that we love will be found where we live or anywhere on earth for that matter brings some heartbreak along with the delight in seeing them again after a long winter. And of course we have grief for people who have already suffered from drought, fire, floods, sea-level rise, and other effects of climate change.

The third of the Solemn Collects asks for the cry of those in misery and need to come to God; it also prays for God to “give us…the strength to serve them for the sake of him who suffered for us.” Gathering our strength and doing whatever we can to prevent and relieve the human misery that results from environmental degradation is the only choice we have as followers of Christ. Choosing to acknowledge the problems we face and working to address them with so little evidence that we can succeed is where we draw on our faith and our hope.

Choosing to act out of compassion allows us to get out from under the weight of our grief. Drawing on our faith for strength, we find energy for the work ahead. A response rooted in compassion is a holy and healthy response to our grief.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maundy Thursday: Lamentations and Love

In Holy Week this year, our Daily Office lessons include readings from Lamentations. These laments were written in response to the destruction and desolation of Jerusalem. We include them during Holy Week because lamentation is a sort of universal language – the words written to grieve one tragedy can help us express our feelings of grief as we remember Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion.

In light of the recent IPCC report on the impacts of climate change [see the National Geographic article New Climate Change Report Warns of Dire Consequences for a short summary of some of the key points and explanation of the report], sections of Lamentations can help us understand and articulate some of the grief most of us feel when we allow ourselves to hear what climate scientists are telling us.

The Book of Lamentations begins with the words “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!”, a lament that might very well apply by mid-century to some now populous cities along coasts or in hot, arid regions. We might even expand that lamen: How lonely sits the city that once was full of people and trees and birds! How lonely sits the ocean that was once full of living things!

Perhaps more heart-breaking, when read with the knowledge that the IPCC report predicts a future in which food production decreases to the point where there is not enough food produced to feed everyone on the earth, are these words from today’s lesson describing children dying of hunger:

My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out on the ground because of the destruction of my people, because infants and babes faint in the streets of the city. They cry to their mothers, “Where is bread and wine?” as they faint like the wounded in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers’ bosom. (Lamentations 2:11-12)

This evening as we observe Maundy Thursday, we will read the account from John 13 of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. When he has finished washing their feet, he asks, “Do you know what I have done to you?” He explains that even though he is indeed their Teacher and Lord, he has done the servant’s work of washing their feet. Jesus has not so much turned the hierarchy on its head as he has destroyed our ideas of privilege that we attaching to hierarchy, and he makes it clear when Peter protests having Jesus wash his feet that unless the disciples can accept this new paradigm, they have “no share” with him. Along with all of this, Jesus gives a new commandment that reflects this way of life: “Love one another.”

It’s clear that Christ would have those of us who now enjoy economic privileges make some hard choices about our way of life. What needs to change in our economy, in our ways of producing and consuming energy and food, and in the way we organize our communities, transportation, and all the other pieces that make up our daily lives so that we can serve others?  Are we prepared to deal with loss of species in our ecosystems and loss of agricultural productivity? How do we need to change so that all of God’s beloved children have a chance at life?


 The song “Before My Time” and the stark images accompanying it during the closing credits of the film Chasing Ice provide a sort of lament for what is happening already; the break-up of the Arctic Ice is a huge loss. Our witness to photographer James Balog’s courage in gathering and sharing evidence of what is happening gives some hope and human meaning amid the desolation.  

Is it any wonder
All this empty air
I'm drowning in the laughter
Way before my time has come

Monday, April 14, 2014

Crucifying Life

In the church during Holy Week we retell the Passion Gospel, reflecting on Christ’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion. We sing hymns and say prayers and hear sermons that call us to examine our own times of denial and betrayal of Christ, the times when our words or actions – or sometimes our failure to speak or act – have served to mock Christ or to drive another nail into him. In many churches, we will hear good reminders that when we join in acceptance of violence of any kind or fail to see and serve those in need we betray Christ himself and essentially deny our relationship to him.

What we will not hear in very many churches this week is the connection between our acceptance of the ongoing degradation of the earth and our apathy as witnesses to Christ’s Passion. We are witnesses removed by time but not necessarily by temperament from the events of Holy Week, and our Scripture readings and liturgies this week are meant to help us bear witness to Jesus’ crucifixion and the events leading up to it. How well we allow ourselves to see and speak of and act in response to what is happening fairly rapidly to our deteriorating biosphere, how well we witness to climate change and pollution, is connected to how well we serve as witnesses to the events of Holy Week.

We may hear this week that we are not very far removed from the frightened disciples and the fickle crowds, that to distinguish between them and us is an error. It’s not a surprising error since we tend to see ourselves – 21st century Christians or Americans or whatever our primary identity – as a unique and exceptional group of people, as did so many groups of people before us. One of the lessons of Holy Week is that we all sin in ways that are at their heart neither unique nor exceptional, just an old, sad story.

We make similar errors in supposing ourselves to be outside the category of people who will be affected profoundly by climate change and in supposing ourselves and all of humanity to be separate from the other living things in Earth’s biosphere. If we continue to ignore the grim facts of climate change and act as if our duties to God and neighbor do not obligate us to address global warming, we mock Christ and drive the nails deeper into Christ on the cross because we crucify all living things – humankind and the web of other living things on which our lives depend.

I invite us to expand our view this year and consider all living things, ourselves and all the others who share our biosphere, as we experience Holy Week. Watch for posts here for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to help in that reflection.

This verse from "My Song is Love Unknown" (sung in this video by the King's College Choir, Cambridge) expresses our tendency to be inconsistent in loving and following Christ:

Sometimes they strew His way,
  And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
  Hosannas to their King:
    Then “Crucify!“
    Is all their breath,
    And for His death
    They thirst and cry

Saturday, April 5, 2014


Lent 5A

When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. (John 11:33-35)

Thinking about the Sunday Gospel in the light of recent news about climate change suggests that one big gift the church could provide at this time is to lead us and support us in grieving.

The Gospel in this week’s lectionary is the story about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Even though Jesus delayed his travel to Bethany two days after receiving the news of his friend’s illness so that “the Son of God may be glorified through it”, and even though he knows when he arrives in Bethany that Lazarus is dead and he will bring him back to life, he weeps at his friend’s death and at the shared grief of Lazarus’s family and friends. The way John includes this detail of Jesus’ grief indicates that it is an essential part of the story. Can we appreciate the joy of resurrection without fully experiencing grief over a death? Jesus’ delay in arriving allows everyone, including himself, to truly acknowledge the death of someone they loved and to experience grief.

On Monday of this week, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released their most recent report on the impacts of climate change. Because their work involves a consensus process, the IPCC reports are fairly conservative; the most dire predictions of climate scientists do not make it into these reports. But the report was disturbing enough to be spotlighted by news organizations that have up to now given little emphasis to the impacts of climate change.

Given a continuation of our failure to make necessary changes and adaptations, the world as we have known it will be ending. There is a lot of anticipated loss to grieve in this, including the loss of arts and institutions that began and thrived in the civilizations that sprang up from successful agricultural societies and the loss of plants and animals with which we have shared our world.

Along with that big report this week, we had disturbing news from the daily reports of atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements from the Mauna Loa observatory. Daily averages the past week have been above 400 ppm, a level we first reached last May. (Carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases; CO2 levels need to be at or below 350 ppm to continue to sustain life as we have known it.)

While there did seem to be some fresh concern about climate change after release of the IPCC report this week, it doesn’t seem to be a major concern for most people and certainly isn’t a cause of grief for most. Even among people who accept the scientific evidence and express some degree of concern, there is a sort of existential denial of the situation. We continue to plan and live as if nothing will happen in our lifetimes or even in our children’s lifetimes. We continue to give priority to the same personal and political issues we would give priority if we could plan on climate stability. And we certainly aren’t grieving the great losses we know (or that we at least know on some level) we face.

In his new book Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, Walter Brueggemann writes (p. 79): The prophetic task, amid a culture of denial, is to embrace, model, and practice grief, in order that the real losses in our lives can be acknowledged.

Was Lazarus really dead? Jesus’ grief cuts through any denial of the death; it was real. The resurrection of Lazarus is meaningful – and possible -- because he was really dead. Brueggemann says (p. 83) that grief “turns loss to energy for newness”.

Might grief for the losses we face and the losses people in other places are already experiencing allow us to see something new that our denial keeps us from seeing? If the only hope we have is hope that nothing will change, our hope is empty. We can’t see whatever new and unfamiliar sort of hope we might find until we do the work of grieving. In a time and place where denial of death and loss is widespread, the church can lead us in grieving what we are losing so we can see our new reality more clearly.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Lent 3: The Woman at the Well

At Church of the Resurrection in Omaha today, Fr. Jason Emerson based this morning’s children’s sermon on the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-42). After asking the children if anyone knew what a well was – “It’s like a big fish!” “No, that’s a whale. This was a well.” – Fr. Jason told them that in this story Jesus asks the woman at the well a lot of questions, but she also asks Jesus a lot of questions. He told the children that this was a good thing, and they should ask lots of questions, too.

I love watching the children interact with Fr. Jason and with one another, and when I can catch a little of the children’s sermon that takes place right before the beginning of the Sunday morning service, it gives me joy. But that joy was mixed with grave concern for these little ones this morning because of a question in something I had read about climate change before leaving for church, a new post on ClimateBites entitled Is it going to be bad or horrifically bad? That’s the scientific debate.

The post links to this video featuring an interview with climate scientist Justin Wood that encourages us to pay attention and become better educated about climate change:

Justin Wood: 97% of actual active climate scientists agree with that position that climate change is real, it's happening right now, and humans are the overwhelming cause in this century and have been for the last 100 years. 'Is it going to be bad or is it going to be horrifically bad' this is what the scientists debate around, not, you know, “it could be fine”. Nothing like that.

The way we are going, if we continue with business as usual if get these rises of temperature by the end of the century of 4, 6, 8, 10 degrees, then he (Professor Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate at University of Manchester, United Kingdom) believes that we would be lucky if 5, maybe 10% of the human pollution survives the century. The planet would essentially be uninhabitable for humans.

Is it going to be bad or horrifically bad? Will human life by the end of this century simply be much more difficult or impossible?

Here is a question for all of us: What are we going to do about it? (As the video suggests, learning more about it is a good first step.)

A major question for the church in this century is: What is the church’s response to climate change? If our response is to ignore it because it seems difficult to talk about it or think about it, or because preachers are afraid of saying anything their congregations might find offensive on a Sunday morning, then we will have failed to be the Body of Christ to a hurting world.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that the time is coming when “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth”. People who worship in truth are people who live in truth. If we are lying to ourselves to escape the hard truths of our world and to avoid the hardest moral issue of our time, how can we worship God in truth? If the church can’t find the moral courage rooted in faith to ask the hard questions, who can?

Questions are good. All of us, adults at least as much as children, need to ask lots of questions.

Nebraskans have a great opportunity to learn more about the intersection of faith, climate change, and environmental stewardship in general at a conference, Creation Care for Congregations, on April 26 at Nebraska Wesleyan University co-hosted by Nebraska Interfaith Power & Light and the Nebraska Energy Office. Rabbi Lawrence Troster will give the keynote address “All in the Same Boat: Confronting the Moral and Spiritual Challenge of Climate Change”.

The day’s schedule and more information is available at the Nebraska Interfaith Power and Light website.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

For a Warming World

Praying the News

For the good earth which God has given us, and for the wisdom and will to conserve it, let us pray to the Lord. (Prayers of the People Form I, p. 384, The Book of Common Prayer)

Scientists Sound Alarm on Climate was a widely shared story in the New York Times today. The article tells about a report called What We Know from the American Association for the Advancement of Science that describes the effects of global warming, many of which we are already seeing. According to the article, this report “warns that the effects of human emissions of heat-trapping gases are already being felt, that the ultimate consequences could be dire, and that the window to do something about it is closing.”

O God our heavenly Father, you have blessed us and given us dominion over all the earth: Increase our reverence before the mystery of life; and give us new insight into your purposes for the human race, and new wisdom and determination in making provision for its future in accordance Race with your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (For the Future of the Human Race, p. 828, The Book of Common Prayer)

Carbon dioxide levels need to be at 350 parts per million or lower to sustain life as we know it on Earth. According to NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, the daily average reading yesterday (March 17) at the Mauna Loa observatory was 401.20. This is the first time the reading has passed 401. For the week beginning on March 9, the weekly average reading was 399.57 ppm; ten years ago it was 378.61 ppm. This week could surpass a weekly average of 400 for the first time ever. There is no reason to think these numbers will decrease in future years or even stabilize. Feedback loops are already in motion, and the large scale effort that we would need to make any difference at all is nowhere on the political or economic horizon.

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.
(Ash Wednesday Litany of Penitence, p. 268, The Book of Common Prayer)

March Evening at the Platte River