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 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.
Saturday, August 2, 2014
Thursday, July 24, 2014
|Carlo Crivelli (circa 1435–circa 1495)|
Two years ago I wrote a post St. James, Scallops, and Drought about the stress ocean acidification places on populations of scallops and other shellfish and how the acidification of the oceans connects to other stresses on on other ecosystems. What do we know about this in 2014?
This has been a difficult year for scallops and the scallop industry in the northwestern United States and British Columbia. In February of this year, the death since 2009 of around 10 millions scallops before they could be harvested resulted in layoffs of workers. (See the CBC article Acidic ocean deadly for Vancouver Island scallop industry.)
The Seattle Times has put together the Sea Change report, an excellent written and video report that describes what is happening in the Pacific Ocean, showing the connections between what is happening to seafood in the Pacific Northwest and what is happening to coral reefs off the coast of Papua New Guinea and the primary protein source for people in the region. The threat to the Pacific Northwest seafood industry and the people who depend on that for their livelihood is tied to a lessening food supply for rural people on South Pacific islands.
The same carbon pollution that contributes so much to global warming is the cause of ocean acidification. A side bar to the report notes that we add “the equivalent of a hopper car of coal — about 100 U.S. tons — into the ocean every second.” Even if we set the huge challenge of global warming aside, what is happening to our oceans is reason enough to shift quickly away from the use of fossil fuels as our primary energy source.
In an announcement last Friday from U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, we learned that the eastern coast of the United States will be opened to oil and gas exploration and to seismic surveys using “sonic cannons” to locate deposits under the ocean floor. (See Obama opens Eastern Seaboard to oil exploration from the Associated Press.) Environmentalists object to the sonic cannons because they harm marine life. Harming marine life in order to make more fossil fuels available, thus increasing the acidity of the ocean and the temperature of the planet, seems especially evil.
One of the most sobering pieces of this report is that the sorts of changes scientists are finding in the Pacific are happening much sooner, at a much faster rate, than predicted:
“I used to think it was kind of hard to make things in the ocean go extinct,” said James Barry of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. “But this change we’re seeing is happening so fast it’s almost instantaneous. I think it might be so important that we see large levels, high rates, of extinction.”
Globally, we can arrest much of the damage if we bring down CO2 soon. But if we do not, the bad news won’t stop. And the longer we wait, the more permanent the change gets.
“There’s a train wreck coming and we are in a position to slow that down and make it not so bad,” said Stephen Palumbi, a professor of evolutionary and marine biology at Stanford University. “But if we don’t start now the wreck will be enormous.”
You might think that would lend the problem urgency. So far, it has not.
St. James was a fisherman. He and his brother John were mending their nets when Jesus called them to follow him. The Eucharistic reading for the Feast of St. James is Matthew 20: 20-28. In this passage, the mother of James and John asks Jesus to give her sons places right next to him in his kingdom. Jesus replies, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”, and the brothers reply, “We are able.”
Jesus asks whether they are able to stick with following him when discipleship becomes even more difficult. Can the Church stick with following Jesus when the right thing to do is to work for an end to our reliance on oil, gas, and coal? Can we stand up to the considerable power and clout of the fossil fuel industry in order to safeguard the welfare of the ocean on which the lives of humans and marine life depends?
Saturday, June 21, 2014
“Ordinary time” is what we call the part of the liturgical year between Pentecost and the beginning of Advent. This long, (liturgically) green season that stretches from late spring to late autumn is “ordinary” because most of the Sundays are named using ordinal numbers — e.g. this Sunday will be “The Second Sunday after Pentecost”.
Outside of the church, ordinary time (or ordinary times) simply refers to a time when nothing particularly unusual or noteworthy is happening. Some stretches of summer days can feel very ordinary; for some, those long, ordinary days when we have a bit more time to relax and simply live are the best thing about summer.
But if we are paying attention, we know that despite appearances, we are living in anything but ordinary times. Recent climate reports tell us that we have passed the point where global warming can be prevented and are well into a series of feedback loops that point to catastrophic consequences beginning in this century unless we act very quickly in very significant ways. Biologists talk about a sixth great extinction, with a new study saying that species are now disappearing from the earth at a rate ten times faster than what they had though previously, which means that “plants and animals are becoming extinct at least 1,000 times faster than they did before humans arrived on the scene.” (See World On Brink Of Sixth Great Extinction, Species Disappearing Faster Than Ever Before)
Trinity Sunday is the first Sunday in the ordinary time after Pentecost. Our first lesson last Sunday morning was Genesis 1:1-2:4, the familiar “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth..” creation story. It names God as Creator and emphasizes the goodness of creation, repeating the sentence “And God saw that it was good”, until the work of creation is done, when “God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) I decided to put my copy of the text in our bulletin aside and simply listen as the lesson was read; it is one I know well and one I enjoy hearing as it describes an ordered unfolding of the richness and diversity of creation.
As I sat and listened to the lesson, I pictured the oceans with “swarms of living creatures”, the plants, the land animals, and the birds. I intended to sit back and enjoy this poetic listing of so much of what makes the world beautiful and life-giving, so much of what I love, but instead, I found myself holding back tears.
I’ve read the climate reports, and I’m reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. I know where we are now, where we are headed, and that the sea creatures, land animals, birds, plants, and humans are all in various degrees of danger of disappearing. It is heart-breaking, especially in light of God’s pronouncement that it was all “very good”, and especially in light of Genesis 1:28, when God put humankind — us — in charge of God’s good creation.
We who are alive today are living in a time so un-ordinary as to be nearly inconceivable even as we live in the midst of this reality. These times require from all of us an extraordinarily profound repentance and a deep change of life and heart. We have passed some tipping points. It is too late to prevent or reverse a troubling increase in global temperature, and it is too late to save us from some destruction from sea level rise. However, it is not too late to do everything we can to mitigate the destruction and to live as people who are sincerely repentant for our failure to rule wisely over God’s creation.
Recent weeks have brought signs that conscious recognition of our situation and a willingness to turn ourselves around and make some changes may be increasing. The Turning Point: New Hope for the Climate is a new essay by Al Gore written for the July 2rd-17th issue of Rolling Stone. In it, Sen. Gore begins by laying out the reality of where we are today, noting that as a result of the recent climate reports coupled with the news of the irreversible collapse of a portion of the West Antarctic ice sheet, “many — including some who had long since accepted the truth about global warming — had difficulty coming to grips with the stark new reality that one of the long-feared ‘tipping points’ had been crossed. And that, as a result, no matter what we do, sea levels will rise by at least an additional three feet.”
However, he offers signs of real hope, signs that we may be at a “turning point”, what we might call a point of conversion. He points to a big growth in the use of solar power worldwide, to a greater willingness for governments to put limits on carbon emissions, and to signs that September’s UN Climate Summit and the 2015 climate negotiations in Paris will produce something significant. (He notes that many regard the Paris negotiations as “the last chance to avoid civilizational catastrophe while there is still time”.) And he compares all of this to other movements for social change, quoting poet Wallace Stevens: “After the final ‘no’ there comes a ‘yes’/And on the ‘yes’ the future world depends.”
Closer to home is the reality of the series of tornadoes, storms, and flooding rains in parts of Nebraska this week and earlier this month coupled with a sign of our willingness to begin turning around: a report from Friday’s Omaha World Herald on OPPD’s plans to reduce carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency.
We do live in extraordinary times, but everything depends on something Christians know in our bones: the ‘yes’ that is the the beginning of a deep conversion, a willingness to transform our hearts and our lives so we are more closely aligned with God’s will. Sometimes our hearts have to be broken before we are able to let go of our old lives and allow that transformation to happen.
This Sunday’s Gospel lesson (Matthew 10:24-39) ends with this: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” We will find our lives, intertwined as they are with the lives of all other creatures, when we let go of a way of life that is no longer life-giving and say ‘yes’ to something new.
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
The traditional English celebration of Rogation Days, the three days preceding Ascension Day, included a procession around the boundaries of the parish (often coextensive with the boundaries of a village). At stops along the boundaries, the congregation prayed for the welfare of the village and especially for a good growing season, and the priest blessed the fields. The procession stopped several times for these prayers and blessings, often at important landmarks along the boundaries of the parish. Along with an occasion for prayer and blessings, walking the bounds or beating the bounds also ensured a public memory and a clear public proclamation of exactly where boundaries lay. Ensuring clarity of the boundaries eliminated disputes and gave everyone a common understanding of the bounds of the parish.
The Book of Common Prayer for the Episcopal Church adapts the tradition to our time and place by focusing on traditional rural concerns for the growing season the first day, commerce and industry the second day, and stewardship of creation the third day. In this way, the custom of offering prayers and blessings on the Rogation Days has been preserved in a meaningful way for our context. But since we aren’t living in old English villages, the traditions of creating awareness of boundaries and blessing the bounds has been lost along the way. Some Episcopal parishes process around a neighborhood, community garden, or large church property or drive out into the country to bless a parishioner’s fields, allowing the tradition of praying these prayers outdoors with a festive procession to continue, but any “bounds” that are walked lack the importance of the boundaries that were both declared and blessed in earlier times.
In this era of accelerated global warming, however, we might begin a new Rogation custom of observing and praying the bounds or limits of our biosphere. Through our lack of awareness of the limits of the amounts of greenhouse gases that can be released into our atmosphere without jeopardizing life on Earth, we have made our bounds smaller. Each year the world fails to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions and acknowledge the laws of chemistry and physics that determine the limits of our biosphere for human life, we leave ourselves less room for solutions that allow us to continue to live and live well. Our inaction is pulling the bounds tighter, leaving us less and less wiggle room.
During the Rogation Days, we might prayerfully study the current state of global warming and pray about the bounds or limits we discover. Here is a place to start, a post by Kiley Kroh on Climate Progress last week: Global Temperatures In April Tied For The Hottest On Record.
April may have brought mild temperatures to much of North America, but that wasn’t the case for the planet as a whole. Last month officially tied for the warmest April globally since recordkeeping began in 1880, according to data released by NOAA’s National Climactic Data Center on Tuesday.
This makes it the 38th consecutive April and 350th consecutive month with a global temperature at or above the 20th century average. The last time the planet experienced an April with below-average temperatures was 1976.
The post goes on to discuss the parallel rise in carbon emissions and expectations for future temperature rises.
We need to put significant limits emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases around the world to mitigate global warming. We might acknowledge the need for those limits and pray about them. As temperatures rise we will experience all sorts of big changes that will place limits on human activity. Agriculture will be impacted, marine ecosystems will suffer, and people will need to leave places that become uninhabitable because of rising seas, extreme temperatures, or lack of water. These are our new bounds, the limits within which we will try to live and continue to love one another and love God. Prayer and mindful meditation about those limits is one of the great gifts people of faith can offer now.
If we pray about those bounds and find mindful acceptance of them, we may be able to find blessing there as well. A clear public proclamation of these limits coupled with a blessing of all living things inside these new bounds brings Rogation Days out of the realm of quaint Anglican history and into the heart of what Christ calls us to do today.
For stewardship of creation
O merciful Creator, your hand is open wide to satisfy the needs of every living creature: Make us always thankful for your loving providence; and grant that we, remembering the account that we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your good gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit live and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 259, Collects for Rogation Days)
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. (Matthew 5:13)
This report is a tale of two futures - one of inaction and degradation of our environment, our economies, and our social fabric. The other, to seize the moment and the opportunities for managing climate change risks and making transformational change that catalyzes more adaptive and resilient societies where new technologies and ways of living open the door to a myriad of health, prosperity and job-generating benefits. The path of tomorrow is undoubtedly determined by our choices today. We must decide which path to follow. (Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, discussing the IPCC impacts report)
A convergence of reports, increased news coverage, and severe weather events in the past few weeks have helped more and more people realize that climate change is real, it is now, and it is a topic that will be gaining more and more of our attention for the rest of our lives.
In the past month and a half, a convergence of reports, increased news coverage, and severe weather events have increased public awareness of climate change. The IPCC reports on the impacts of climate change and mitigation of climate change were followed in the United States by the National Climate Assessment. The National Climate Assessment includes regional summaries (see the Great Plains here), allowing us not only to think globally about climate change but also to begin seeing what to expect closer to home. Meanwhile, a combination of severe storm and tornado outbreaks, exceptionally heavy rainfall in some parts of the United States, ongoing drought conditions, and early heat waves and fires in some parts of the southwest have reminded us of what we can expect now that, in the words of Don Wuebbles, coordinating lead author of the National Climate Assessment report, “the old normal is broken”.
Yesterday’s reports of the irreversible collapse of West Antarctica’s ice sheet and what that means for sea level rise beginning this century underlined the urgency and importance of what these recent reports have said. Here is NASA scientist Tom Wagner on the PBS NewsHour telling about the research and what it means:
The impact of this is huge. As Tom Wagner noted, 1.5 feet of sea level rise displaces 11 million people in Bangladesh alone. Most of the world’s large cities are built around ports.
Does this mean anything for the church? What might people who follow Christ do with this new information and this new normal?
The Daily Office Gospel lesson for today (Matthew 5: 11-16) tells us that we are the salt of the earth; it also tells us that if we have lost our “saltiness”, if we are instead bland and of no consequence to those around us, we may as well be thrown out. In other words, if the church fails to respond to these huge changes taking place in our world this century, we may as well close our doors. Jesus goes on to remind us that lights are meant to shine, not to be hidden. Christians are about letting our light shine.
UN climate secretary Christiana Figueres says the world in general is at a point where we can choose either inaction and the consequences of further degradation of our environment, economies, and social fabric, or transformational change. The church’s response needs to begin with an acknowledgement of the crisis and with bringing it into our conversations and preaching and prayers. What we need to be about, though, if we are to remain the salt of the earth and let our light shine is the business of transformational change. All the business of reimagining the church and sorting out our core values and beliefs from traditions that may keep us from going where Christ would lead us this century is essential business now.
What does the church have to offer that can serve as a beacon in this century? What does the church continue to keep that prevents us from responding to climate change and its impacts the way Christ would have us respond? How do we let our little light shine?
Saturday, April 19, 2014
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
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.