Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday: The Goodness of Grief

Reflecting on the Solemn Collects of our Good Friday liturgy last year in the post Good Friday: Grief, Compassion and Hope, I talked about the weight of grief as we hear again the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion and the way that resonates with the weight of grief felt by people paying to attention to climate change and its effects on all forms of life on this planet.

The weight of that grief is heavier this year than it was last year. Since last Good Friday, 2014 has been declared the warmest year on record. As 2015 is underway, we continue to break records for the hottest continuous twelve months on record.  Arctic sea ice has hit its lowest winter maximum on record. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now commonly at or above 400 ppm. A new study shows that the rate of sea level rise is greater than previously thought.

California is under a Drought State of Emergency while the northeastern United States is emerging from big winter snow totals that broke records in places like Boston. Both situations produce negative economic impacts for people. Some parts of the world suffer from flooding and damaging storm winds while others see worsening drought. Along with producing immediate harm from floods, winds, and burning forests and prairies, these extreme conditions increase food insecurity. 

But Good Friday reminds us that we do not grieve alone. It can feel that way, because we live in a society that often turns away from facing challenges like climate change because we don’t know what to do with grief. Good Friday gives us a day when grief is acknowledged, felt, and even expected. It’s a day for people paying attention throughout the year to feel less alone in our grief and to be part of a worshiping community that can gather to grieve

The weight of grief for our biosphere has grown heavier in a year, but the promise of Good Friday that compassion for those who suffer can lift us all into a place of some sort of hope still rings true. Hope is not uninformed optimism; hope is not an irrational belief that we will magically return to a time before climate destabilization. Hope is faith that love has power we cannot fathom and even the worst of human experience can be redeemed.

And, more than ever, I still believe this part of last year’s reflection to be true:
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.
We are an Easter people, even on Good Friday and because of Good Friday. Opening ourselves to grief, lamenting and being present to the reality of so much loss, also allows us to experience genuine compassion, the entry point to genuine hope.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday: Speaking the Uncomfortable Words

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

On Ash Wednesday, many of us go out of our way to get to church so we can hear or say these words that declare our mortality. They are not comforting words, but they are honest words. They tell the truth we all know but seldom articulate. We know that the way to a deeper appreciation of the wonder and joy of Easter resurrection begins with this clear reminder of the way things are: we are mortal, made of dust, and utterly dependent on God for life now and after the death of our present bodies. 

The passage we read on Ash Wednesday from Isaiah (Isaiah 58:1-12) might also make us a bit uncomfortable. God says that the sort of fast that God chooses isn’t a traditional fast; it isn’t practicing false humility, but it’s doing something bold: loosing the bonds of injustice, freeing the oppressed, feeding and clothing the hungry and giving them shelter. 

Different people take different paths for Lenten discipline. Different stages of life and especially different stages of the faith journey call for different practices. Anything that helps us repent of “our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 268) is appropriate for a Lenten discipline, and especially so as the gap between what climate scientists expect us to experience this century and what we are doing to either mitigate that or prepare for it seems to grow greater every year. 

Once again this year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ offers the option of a “carbon fast”, a calendar with a different action each day to help us become more conscious of our energy use and more conscientious about our stewardship.  Another option is a simple practice of spending some time outdoors every day just looking and listening and reconnecting to God through reconnecting with God’s creation. [See Lent in God’s Holy Creation]

Another practice to consider adopting this Lent resonates with the truthful but sometimes uncomfortable words of Ash Wednesday: we could simply speak out loud about climate change. People are uncomfortable talking about climate change. After all, we are uncomfortable talking about our own mortality, and if climate change continues under the “business as usual” scenario that seems to be all our political and business leaders can muster, we are talking about ecocide, about the death of the biosphere that supports and sustains all living things on our planet. Speaking the truth — just saying the words — requires some boldness and courage in most settings. There is an unwritten, unspoken, assumption that climate change, like death, is not something to acknowledge in polite company. It doesn’t need to be argumentative or in people’s faces; it is often enough to say, “I’m concerned about climate change.”

In a completely secular setting, Bill Nye (the Science Guy) recently talked about climate change on MSNBC and asked that television journalists “just say ‘climate change’”. In this clip, you hear him say, “People ask me all the time ‘What can I do about climate change?’ Just talk about it. If we were talking about it, we would raise awareness and we would get to work.”

There is even more reason for Christians to talk about climate change. Just as we must take an honest look at our personal mortality in order to appreciate God’s gift of life both now and eternally, we must take an honest look at climate change in order to realize the precarious and precious nature of our biosphere. We must take an honest look at climate change in order to be grounded in the truth that can give us the sense of urgency to act boldly to keep the worst possible scenarios from unfolding. The Hebrew prophets knew that the work of God’s people was the work of the restoration or repair of a just and beautiful creation. The work of the church in this century must include the work of talking about climate change and advocating for climate stability. If we neglect this work at this critical point of human history, and if we neglect our brothers and sisters who already suffer displacement, hunger, or increased poverty and violence because of the effects of climate change, our fast days and our claims to be praying to God in humility are meaningless. 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Deep Faith and Candlemas Light

Call it Candlemas or the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple or even, as most people in the United States do, Groundhog Day, this day midway between winter and spring marks a subtle turning of the seasons. Even this year, when Candlemas finds most of Nebraska snow-covered and frigid, there is a noticeable difference in the slant of the sunlight and the length of days that helps us know in our bones that spring is on its way. 

This day on the church calendar offers rich stories and prayers for reflection. And even though the church’s texts for the day have no immediate connection to concerns for caring for the planet or its people and other creatures, a subtle connection is there. [See Candlemas Light from 2011 about hope, or Mother Nature and Her Groundhogs from 2013 about embracing truth.] I wonder whether these texts connect in a nearly hidden way to caring for the earth because some old European calendars considered this the beginning of spring, but it's more likely that it is another instance where the Gospel message heard in our world points us to caring for all living things.

Today’s Eucharistic reading for the Presentation of Our Lord (Luke 2:22-40) tells the story of Mary and Joseph taking the infant Jesus to the temple. Simeon recognizes Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” and blesses him, and Anna begins to praise God and talk about the child.

This year Daily Prayer for All Seasons  from the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music has introduced me to a Denise Levertov poem called Candlemas. (Read the poem here.) Speaking of Simeon, Denise Levertov wrote:
What depth
of faith he drew on,
turning illumined
towards deep night.
Deep faith like Simeon’s offers a place to ground ourselves as we face the effects of climate change, which are both unfolding around us in our time and yet nearly beyond our imagination. Awareness of what is happening as our world warms can result in hopelessness as we are already past the point of no return even if we continue to work to mitigate warming and its effects. This hopelessness slides easily into cynicism, a feeling that there is nothing to be done and, hence, no reason to do anything significant to try to change things. On the other hand, some people handle the situation by embracing false hope, either denying in thought and/or actions that anything is happening at all or supposing that a few changes here and there — but nothing that changes our way of life very much — will be sufficient to keep everything much as it is now. (False hope is the coinage of greenwashing and of political crumbs thrown to environmentalists.)

Deep faith offers an alternative to both cynicism and false hope. Deep faith turns to the darkness, the “deep night”; deep faith sees the darkness and acknowledges it. But instead of turning away from the darkness or being swallowed by it, deep faith makes us able us to stare into the darkness and yet be illumined. It makes it possible for us to shed some of that light into the darkness around us. 

Deep faith tells us that our prayers and our actions have some profound meaning, that our efforts are worth something even if we don’t get the results for which we fervently pray. Deep faith assures us that God is good and all will be well even when we can’t envision what “all will be well” could mean in a rapidly warming world. 

Deep faith sustained Mary after Simeon told her, “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” It can be our sustenance in 2015 and in the years ahead. Tending to our souls, to growing our faith deeper, is essential to the church’s response to environmental degradation. 

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?