Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Birds and the Tolling of the Bells

This morning at 11:00 Central time, Trinity Cathedral in Omaha joined Episcopal churches across the nation in tolling their bells 59 times, once for each person who was killed in this week’s mass shooting in Las Vegas. This shooting is our most recent horror, bringing us once again to place of national grief. For some, that grief bleeds into despair as we ask what we can do not only to remember the dead and give the moment the solemnity it requires, but also to stop this progression of violence that threatens to numb us to the possibility of living any other way.

As the bells at Trinity Cathedral began tolling, groups of birds — primarily pigeons and starlings — flew up from treetops and rooftops in downtown Omaha. Murmurations of startled birds turned in the wind, navigating away from the clangs of the bells. After several tolls, though, many of the birds settled back onto the trees and roofs, and at the end of the fifty-nine tolls, groups of the remaining birds flew back into the area, leaving the distribution of birds on the trees and rooftops of downtown Omaha much as it had been before 11:00.

Our news in the United States in recent weeks has brought one startling story after another, stories of extremely destructive hurricanes, stories of racism, stories of war and threats of war, stories of interference in our political process, and stories of gun violence. Some of these are new developments of very old stories and some are new, but each new story of something way out of the ordinary momentarily startles us much as the beginning of the 59 tolls startled the birds in Omaha. After the initial shock, we move into action, whether to simply find out more about it or try to do something constructive in response. Some of us settle back to our normal routines and places fairly quickly, while others wait until the “news cycle” has moved onto something else. People who were deeply concerned about relief efforts in Puerto Rico a couple of days ago had their attention shocked away from that by what happened in Las Vegas. 

Unlike the birds, though, we have the capacity after the initial shock has worn off to choose to remember what happened and to remain concerned about the issues that underlie these news stories. We can reflect on what happened and work on figuring out better ways to live with one another. We can realize that each new shock is connected to the others, and that all those directly affected by each new horror are connected to us. No event and no person stands alone. We can realize that all the issues we treat as isolated are interconnected: our failure to address climate change is tied to our acceptance of racism and violence and dysfunctional governance. Whatever we choose to forget and ignore still affects us, whatever we choose to passively accept as some twisted new version of normal is going to affect each of us as the perversion of God’s kingdom that it is. 

And perhaps we can remember and understand the words of John Donne:

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee. 


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Responding to the New Normal: Sunday and Beyond

I’m writing this midway between Sundays, and between hurricanes for the mainland United States. Hurricane Irma has already done incredible damage in the Caribbean, and today we will see it continue its path to more islands while we watch to see which way it turns. Floridians are preparing for possible landfall of this huge hurricane. We pray for everyone in its path and everyone on the islands already hit, while prayers and aid continue for communities on the Texas and Louisiana coasts.

Along with hearing early reports of the catastrophic damage left by Irma on its first hits in the Caribbean,we have for weeks now found ourselves in the midst of an extraordinary confluence of events this late summer of 2017.  Fires burn in the western United States, people with DACA  status (and their families, friends, schools, and employers) face uncertainty that was not there before, and the hate on display at the August 12 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville remains largely unaddressed. And there’s so much more, but while all of this is interconnected, this post is meant to address two things: how these hurricanes and fires are changing the way many people in our communities and our pews think about climate change, and some thoughts about how the church at its best might respond to that.

What we see going on here in the U.S. is what we knew we would be seeing at some point this century. The devastation caused by storms made more severe by warmer seas and a warmer atmosphere and by fires made worse by above average temperatures and lack of rain is similar to what people in some other parts of the world have already experienced. Now, though, we are seeing it on a big scale in our own country. What we have known as an abstract probability is now visible, and the size of the disasters and the sort of effect they can have on our lives is suddenly very real. For people who weren’t sure whether climate change would really make things that much different from what they were in the past, that skepticism seems like a naive hope that has been extinguished. 

However, along with being better able to grasp how climate change can affect us, we also know that scientists tell us it will get even worse unless we act with urgency to make very significant changes in the ways we produce and use energy. We have a taste of what to expect, but even while we are trying to comprehend what is happening now, we are also getting a clearer picture of our future if we continue on our current trajectory. That picture is very distressing.

What will we do in our churches on Sunday? Our usual responses to disasters are to offer prayers for the victims (if we remember to insert them into the Prayers of the People) and perhaps to have an announcement of some sort about where to send money for disaster aid. (If we think about it early enough in advance, we might include the bulletin inserts from Episcopal Relief and Development.) Both prayer and traditional disaster aid are very much needed now, and including these usual responses is a good place to begin with our response to what is happening. Bidding prayers for everyone involved and encouraging donations to reputable aid agencies is the minimum for this Sunday. 

But we in the Church need something more this time, something that differs as much from our normal practice as the succession of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma (and possibly a third storm, Hurricane Jose) and their scale differs from the historical norms for hurricane season in North America. Here are some things the Church can do this Sunday and beyond to help people who are trying to come to grips with the reality of the changes in our world. 

Clergy and lay leaders need to know what is happening outside of the church walls. We need to find out what is going on in the places that have already been hit by these hurricanes and what is going on elsewhere in the world — e.g. the fires in the west, the flooding in southern Asia — so that we can find compassion for the people, places, and nonhuman living things suffering from the effects of climate change. Short term, that means keeping up with the news. Long term, it means study about climate change and about the theological underpinnings for response to widespread destruction. The prophetic books of the Bible and commentaries on the prophets is a place to start for the latter. There is more information about climate change available in the mainstream media than there was in the fairly recent past. (This increase in coverage is timely as much of the information on government websites has been removed.) In addition, some specialty websites like the climate section of Think Progress and the Climate Central site provide current information. The New York Times this week offers an interactive tool to help readers understand the concept of a carbon budget and the limits that the laws of nature place on our policy decisions about carbon pollution.

Prayers in our public worship for disaster victims and their families and the people who are helping them recover can be coupled with prayers for our planet and our nation, as these disasters are part of a bigger picture. Several prayers in The Book of Common Prayer would be appropriate — e.g. Prayer 18 For our Country (p. 820), Prayer 41 For the Conservation of Natural Resources (p. 827), and Prayer 44 For the Future of the Human Race

The Church is already behind in preparing to meet (and beginning to meet) the spiritual needs of people who are starting to grasp the reality and scope of climate change. Other organizations can advocate for sound climate policy or send aid to victims, but the Church is the institution best suited to addressing the spiritual angst of people beginning to sense the scope of the destruction we have unleashed on our planet. A great start to this work in places that haven’t begun is simply to ask the hard existential questions that arise around climate change and sit prayerfully with them. If the Church’s spiritual leaders have at least reflected on the big questions we are starting to ask, we will be in a better place to speak with others about those questions.

Finally — and perhaps most importantly if we are to address the needs of people coming to church this Sunday after hearing news of Irma’s destruction only a week after hearing news about Harvey — we can preach it. Imagine walking into a church after listening to hurricane updates on your car radio and hearing a sermon that doesn’t acknowledge that there is anything out of the ordinary going on in our nation! (This is easy to imagine, as it is an all too common experience.) Name the reality; acknowledge the disasters and acknowledge that we are experiencing the effects of extreme weather resulting from anthropogenic global warming (climate change). And offer real hope, good news. We must be real both about the situation we are in and about what hope looks like in this situation. (Perhaps our hope is that we will be faithful disciples, treating others with love and kindness in chaotic situations. Perhaps our hope is that good people might persuade our leaders to act in significant ways so that we can mitigate the worst effects of climate change, or perhaps our hope is simply in the promises of Jesus that in the midst of destruction, we will find abundant and everlasting life.) Sharing real hope — hope that acknowledges the reality of our situation — keeps us going and in no way diminishes the severity of the situation; hope is what allows us to be honest about the problem at hand. 

My plea to the church is this: don’t let us down this time. If we want to avoid dealing with hard things, if we can’t bring ourselves to talk about the true scope of physical and spiritual suffering for fear of offending people in the pews, then we should simply admit that we cannot find the compassion to give priority to the victims of these disasters now or in the future. The disasters will continue, and at some point the Church will either be seen in our communities as a place where we can bring our deepest hopes and fears — and perhaps even the place where we can best bring our deepest hopes and fears — or as a place that doesn’t care and that doesn’t matter much in a changing world. 





Saturday, August 26, 2017

Praying the Earth's News: August 26, 2017

This weekend we are watching Hurricane Harvey along the Texas coast. We offer prayers in response to this storm.

Almighty God, in giving us dominion over things on earth you made us fellow workers in your creation: Give us wisdom and reverence so to use the resources of nature, that no one may suffer from our abuse of them, and that generations yet to come may continue to praise you for your bounty; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Collect For the Conservation of Natural Resources (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 827)

Please pray for:

People in the path of Hurricane Harvey. 

The helpers and first responders working during and after the storm.  

A compassionate response from the rest of our nation. Officials predict that some areas along the Texas coast may be uninhabitable for weeks or even months. Residents of those areas will need to go someplace else, as some residents of New Orleans did after Katrina. Pray for open hearts and welcoming communities.

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer for Social Justice (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 823)

Wisdom for our leaders to acknowledge and apply what we know about the effects of climate change on severe storms. Climate change affects the severity of storms; warmer air holds more moisture, increasing rainfall in storms, and warmer ocean waters give hurricanes more energy. [See The Relationship Between Hurricanes and Climate Change.] We have known both that anthropogenic global warming is happening and that it will have an effect on severe weather for some time, but our leaders more often than not either ignore or deny the facts. As a consequence, we are not doing what we could to mitigate the effects of climate change or to adapt to these changes, and our denial has left us less well-prepared than we could be. Pray that this storm might open our eyes to the reality before us.

O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light rises up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in your light we may see light, and in your straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer for Guidance (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 832)




Sunday, June 4, 2017

Praying the Earth's News: Pentecost Edition


June 4, 2017

Today against a backdrop of another week of alarming climate news, we celebrate that long ago Pentecost described in Acts (Acts 2:1-21). The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus’s followers with “a sound like the rush of a violent wind” and the sight of “divided tongues, as of fire”, and then Jesus’s followers were speaking in languages they had not known before so that they could go to the whole world and tell the Good News. 

Just as those early Christians were empowered to leave their small community of believers and go out into the world, we pray that we may be empowered to go out from our churches today and find ourselves with the words and power we need to tell the world about Jesus’s way of living. 

“O Lord, how manifold are your works!” Psalm 104, the Psalm designated for today, reminds us of the wonders of creation and that God, the Creator of everything, rejoices in all of creation. An important part of the story we share with the world — and a part that is essential for the survival of civilization — is the story of God’s love for the world and our duty to take good care of what God has made. 

We have a lot of work ahead of us. There is no time for discouragement. Pray for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Almighty God, in giving us dominion over things on earth you made us fellow workers in your creation: Give us wisdom and reverence so to use the resources of nature, that no one may suffer from our abuse of them, and that generations yet to come may continue to praise you for your bounty; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Collect For the Conservation of Natural Resources (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 827)

Please pray for:

The Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica and our response to its effects on the rest of the world. The crack in the Larsen C ice shelf has grown rapidly in recent weeks, and an iceberg the size of the state of Delaware is expected to break off very soon. According to weather.com

Though the changes are happening in the most remote part of the planet, they’re being felt thousands of miles away as ice turns to water and starts to lap against increasingly beleaguered coastal communities around the world. And the impacts will only grow more severe unless carbon pollution is reined in.

Our planet as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in May reached an all-time monthly high. May is always the peak month for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels records at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawai’i. Brian Kahn of Climate Central reports that this year’s average reading for May was 409.65 ppm. (The goal for climate stability is 350 ppm.) Kahn writes: 

The reading from May is well above the 407.7 ppm reading from May 2016. And it’s far above the 317.5 ppm on record for May 1958, the first May measurement on record for Mauna Loa, the gold standard for carbon dioxide measurements. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide stood at roughly 280 ppm.

Lord, have mercy.

The world’s ability to mitigate the effects of climate change despite the President’s attempts to remove the United States from the Paris climate accord. Leaders of other nations, several states and major cities in the United States, and leaders of industry have vowed to work around the proposed U.S. federal withdrawal from the climate accord. Pray for courage, wisdom, and creativity for those leaders who have the vision and will to lead us in making the changes necessary for our survival. 


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 with your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 
Prayer for the Future of the Human Race (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 828)

As we pray for others, we might also pray for our own hearts to be broken open so we can see the needs in the world around us and gladly respond to those needs:

O heavenly Father, who has filled the world with beauty; Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in your whole creation, we may learn to serve you with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer for Joy in God’s Creation (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 814)


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Praying the Earth's News: April 8, 2017

We began this Lenten series of Praying the Earth’s News posts reflecting on repentance and on the Litany of Penitence from the Book of Common Prayer. As we begin Holy Week, we look at some of the earth’s news of the week and revisit the place of repentance as we become more aware of “catastrophic climate disruption”. 

Almighty God, in giving us dominion over things on earth you made us fellow workers in your creation: Give us wisdom and reverence so to use the resources of nature, that no one may suffer from our abuse of them, and that generations yet to come may continue to praise you for your bounty; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Collect For the Conservation of Natural Resources (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 827)

Please pray for:

People suffering from famine and disease resulting from the drought in eastern Africa.  According to Voice of America, three hundred new cases of cholera and dozens of deaths are being reported every day in Somalia. The incidence of cholera is expected to increase greatly with the arrival of the rainy season. VOA reports that “more than six million Somalis, half the population, need food, water and medical assistance.”

Climate stability, and the wisdom to act now to prevent disaster. New research published this week makes the immediacy of the choice between cutting greenhouse gas emissions and “pushing the climate outside the bounds that have allowed civilization to thrive” clear. If we don’t change course, by the middle of this century — which is fast approaching — the atmosphere could reach a state “unseen in 50 million years”. When this atmospheric state was last seen, writes Brian Kahn, “temperatures were up to 18 degrees F (10 degrees C) warmer, ice was nowhere to be seen and oceans were dramatically higher than they are now.” 

Climate refugees. The Guardian reported this week on former US Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Sherri Goodman’s analysis of the impact of climate change as a “threat multiplier” for security, igniting conflict and contributing to new waves of “mass forced migration” from areas such as the  Pacific islands, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. Ben Doherty quotes Goodman talking about the role of climate disruption in the situation in Syria:

From 2006 to 2010, 60% of Syria had its worst long-term drought and crop failures since civilization began. About 800,000 people in rural areas lost their livelihood by 2009. Three million people were driven into extreme poverty, and 1.5 million migrated to cities.

The courage to repent. Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, Fr. John Surette argues that we are approaching a “planetary precipice”, and that our best response — “the smartest and holist thing to do” — is to repent. He emphasizes that repentance means a “total change in direction”. Fr. Surette encourages us to ask ourselves these questions as we finish Lent: “Do we want to repent? Do we have the courage to make that 180-degree turn? What will humans choose to do?” (Fr. Surette’s article Climate change is the prophetic call to repentance of our time. is well worth reading as Holy Week begins.)

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 with your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer for the Future of the Human Race (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 828)




Saturday, April 1, 2017

Praying the Earth's News and Taking Off Our Grave Clothes: April 1, 2017

Almighty God, in giving us dominion over things on earth you made us fellow workers in your creation: Give us wisdom and reverence so to use the resources of nature, that no one may suffer from our abuse of them, and that generations yet to come may continue to praise you for your bounty; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Collect For the Conservation of Natural Resources (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 827)

The earth’s news this week included what is becoming an all-too-familiar set of stories about extreme weather, climbing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane to of along with rising global temperatures and sea levels, and particular local struggles for environmental justice. 

This week, however, brought unusual news for us in the United States, and since the laws of science aren’t bound by our geo-political boundaries, this U.S. news brings new concern to the whole world. This week our national political will resulted not in the usual too-little-too-late mode of steps toward addressing climate change, but in an attempt to take giant steps backwards in our fight for climate stability. That attempt took the form of an Executive Order intended to dismantle the Clean Power Plan. This action signals a breathtaking disregard for the reality of climate change and its effects. That disregard also signals to other countries that the United States intends to continue to be a leading global polluter, and that our political leaders don’t intend to assert global leadership in mitigating global warming. 

Hope lies in the fact that legal challenges will at least delay and at best prevent the implementation of this Executive Order. Hope also lies in the economics of energy, where wind and solar energy compete with fossil fuel energy. But those hopes don’t erase the fact that the choices of the American people have resulted in a very real threat to the entire planet.

Tomorrow’s Gospel is the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45). The New Revised Standard Version translates Jesus’s instructions in Verse 44 as “Unbind him, and let him go”, while the New International versions says “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” We bind ourselves up, wrapping ourselves in grave clothes, when we numb ourselves to realities we would rather not face. We wrap ourselves in grave clothes when we pretend that something that is glaringly out of the ordinary is normal. Perhaps we ignore a worrisome physical symptom in ourselves, something that should be brought to a doctor’s attention, because we don’t want to deal with what the doctor might tell us. That sort of normalization of something aberrant isn’t life-giving.

It seemed to me this week in planning this post that normalizing the turn we have taken as a nation with regards to environmental degradation would be a way of binding ourselves up comfortably in our own grave clothes. Prayers of repentance might be a good way to mark our understanding of the gravity of our situation. Actions — even something as simple as naming the reality of climate change and our negligence in addressing it — will help to unbind us and let us truly live.

Almighty God, who created us in your own image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of you holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and fore ever. Amen.
Collect for Social Justice, Rite Two (The Book of Common Prayer)

Please pray for:

The will to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Atmospheric carbon dioxide needs to be measuring around 350 ppm for climate stability. The March 30 reading at the Mauna Loa observatory was was 409.39 ppm.

Our political leaders.   

Those who have died in mudslides in Colombia this weekend, and those who survived and are dealing with the mudslides and floods. As of this writing, at least 112 people have died in the mudslides.

Pipeline fighters in the Great Plains. Both the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline have been revived under the new administration. These pipelines not only would contribute to the burning of fossil fuels and threaten to pollute water sources and disturb prairie ecosystems, but the locations of the pipelines continue to raise justice issues for indigenous people and ranchers and farmers living along the routes of these pipelines. 

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. Prayer In Times of Conflict (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 824)

As we pray for others, we might also pray for our own hearts to be open so we can see the needs in the world around us and gladly respond to those needs:

O heavenly Father, who has filled the world with beauty; Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in your whole creation, we may learn to serve you with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer for Joy in God’s Creation (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 814)


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Praying the Earth's News: March 23, 2017

We pray this week for people affected by floods and fires that have been made worse by warmer global temperatures, and we pray for our planet and the future of the human race as warming takes us into “uncharted territory”.

Almighty God, in giving us dominion over things on earth you made us fellow workers in your creation: Give us wisdom and reverence so to use the resources of nature, that no one may suffer from our abuse of them, and that generations yet to come may continue to praise you for your bounty; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Collect For the Conservation of Natural Resources (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 827)

Please pray for:

People in Peru affected by severe flooding.  Unusually intense rainfall — “the deadliest downpours in decades” according to this story from Reuters — has resulted in severe flooding in Peru. More than sixty people have died, and the rains and flooding are expected to continue. 

People affected by wildfires in the Great Plains. Fires in the Great Plains have contributed to a “furious start” to the wildfire season in the United States. Dry conditions and very warm late winter temperatures contributed to the fires. Ranchers lost cattle to the fires, leading ranchers to call the fires “our hurricane Katrina”. Here in Nebraska this week, a wildfire near Lake Mcconaughy burned 800 acres and destroyed eight homes.

The earth as we enter “uncharted territory”. The Guardian reports on a World Meteorological Association report on the 2016 global climate, which reports that we have reached a level of warming that takes the planet into “uncharted territory”. NASA reported that on March 7 sea ice extent at both poles reached record lows. The need for action on climate change has never been clearer, but political prospects for such action in the United States at least look slim.

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 with your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer For the Future of the Human Race (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 828)

As we pray for others, we might also pray for our own hearts to be open so we can see the needs in the world around us and gladly respond to those needs:

O heavenly Father, who has filled the world with beauty; Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in your whole creation, we may learn to serve you with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer for Joy in God’s Creation (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 814)