Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmastide: Incarnation

"Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea-monsters and all deeps; fire and hail, snow and fog, tempestuous wind, doing his will.” (Psalm 148: 7-8)

Christmas celebrations in the Diocese of Nebraska this year were shaped by the winter weather. Some parishes, including our parish of St. Stephen’s in Grand Island, went ahead with Christmas Eve plans knowing that attendance might be down a bit because of snow or ice, while others cancelled or rescheduled services.

In south central Nebraska, the Christmas Eve blizzard watch had been dropped for a winter storm warning. (Our true blizzard was to come on Christmas Day.) Before the weather became a big factor, I had planned to be at both our late afternoon family-oriented service and our 10:30 Eucharist. On Christmas Eve, though, knowing that weather conditions were supposed to deteriorate sometime overnight, we started out for the earlier service thinking that as we drove back to Hastings afterwards, we could determine how safe it would be to drive back up for the second service. We were surprised when we got to the edge of town and into more open country! It was clear that the roads were bad and quickly becoming much worse, and so, despite disappointment at the prospect of missing both Christmas Eve services, we turned around and went back home.

Our daughter’s church in Hastings, First Congregational UCC, had a 6:00 Christmas Eve service, so we joined her for that before driving very carefully back to our house for a much more leisurely supper than we can usually squeeze in between Christmas Eve services. The entire evening was a very different experience, not what we had had in mind and not without disappointment about missing the celebration at St. Stephen’s , but a good start to Christmas nonetheless. In the end, the reason for our evening turning out the way it did was a fresh reminder of what we celebrate at Christmas: God’s Incarnation; God being born as a human being, as one of God’s own creatures, to live among us on Earth.

While we find the terms or categories ‘body’ and ‘soul’ useful, we human beings are a complex combination of these elements. Some of the ancient Greeks thought that we had pre-existent souls that were inserted into bodies and that at death continued to exist without a body. In the Nicene Creed, in contrast, Christians emphasize the resurrection of the body, the hope of everlasting life in a new body, not a bodiless eternity. Our sacramental sense in the Episcopal Church also points to the intertwining of the physical with the spiritual. We use physical elements – water, bread, wine, oil – to deepen our experience of God’s grace, and in our liturgy we move around in physical space instead of sitting still, trying to leave our bodies behind.

Pointing to the connection evident in the Hebrew between Adam and his creation from Earth, Robert Alter (The Five Books of Moses, p. 21) translates Genesis 2:7 this way: “…then the LORD God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature.” This is who we are; we are connected both to the Earth, to the physical world, and to our creator God, whose breath of divine spirit gives us life.

We often talk about our souls and our spiritual lives as if they are something separate from our bodies and the rest of life; perhaps we do that to help us remember that we have souls and need to tend to their health, or perhaps we do it to compartmentalize our lives and keep God at a distance. At times we need to give special attention to our spiritual lives because our culture makes it difficult to keep a healthy balance among the variety of human needs, but we err if we take the physical world – and our bodily experience – to be second-rate. We are inextricably connected to the physical world. Our health, both body and soul, is tied to the health of the Earth.

This year, the blizzard’s shaping of our Christmas celebrations is a reminder of our connection to the Earth. Just as the Holy Infant was born in a stable, the last place most people would have looked for the birth of the Messiah, so Christ gets born again in our hearts in unexpected places. We might expect to find the wonder of Christmas in the beautiful liturgy and music of a Midnight Mass or the joyful retelling of the story in a children’s Christmas Eve pageant, places where we have found it before, but we can also find the wonder as we look out alone on wind-driven snow. Our God came to live here among us on Earth, and so we can find God in the earthly elements of wind, cold, and snow.

We are not isolated from the world around us, and we Nebraskans are certainly not unaffected by the weather. Who we are and what we do is bound up with the natural world around us; and who we are and what we do -- and what it is like to live as a human being on this Earth -- are important to our God, who became Incarnate as a baby born in a stable in Bethlehem.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Advent 4: Magnificat

In churches this morning, we remember Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-55) and the joyful Song of Mary , the Magnificat. The first part of Mary’s song praises God and talks about what God has done for her; the middle of the song describes God’s inversion of the economic and political order – casting down the mighty while lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things while the rich are sent away empty -- and it ends with a reminder of God’s promise of mercy. It’s a song about God creating something that’s very new and yet grounded in God’s eternal care and love for God’s people.

Our Daily Office lessons yesterday included Christ’s clear call in Matthew 25 to care for people who are poor, sick, powerless, or lonely. Whenever we do something to serve “the least of these” we are serving Christ; whenever we ignore the needs of the least of these, we turn our backs on Christ. It was in many ways a fitting lesson for the end of the Copenhagen climate conference. The politics of the conference dictated an outcome that keeps the nations in conversation about climate change and leaves the door open for a significant agreement at some unspecified time in the future, but it also leaves people in poorer nations that are already feeling negative effects from climate change where they were at the beginning of the conference. The wealthier nations like the United States, aware of the lack of political will back home to do the hard work of making deep cuts in carbon emissions, negotiated this the way we do other issues.

Compromise is a grand thing, and a few tentative first steps can be claimed as a political victory on many issues, but the physics of climate change doesn’t leave any room for political expediency or compromise. Just as not making a decision is a sort of decision in itself, so declaring ourselves favorable to the idea of making some undefined cuts in carbon emissions without making the commitment to deep change that science tells us is necessary is a decision to turn our backs through our inaction on those who are harmed first and worst by climate change.

One dynamic of this conference was that President Obama did not have a clean energy bill from our Congress to show a real commitment from Americans. The Senate will be debating this legislation in coming weeks and months. Today’s Omaha World Herald has an op-ed piece signed by several of us Nebraska clergy that articulates why climate change is a faith issue that calls for our attention.

In Mary’s song, we hear her joyful faith in God’s mercy and in God’s love for the least of these. Where is our merciful and loving God in the news from Copenhagen, when the needs of the least of these were sacrificed to the agendas of the rich and powerful? God’s promises endure; God calls us back again and again to live in harmony with God’s intentions for our world. Reports from Copenhagen talked about the crowds of people from all over the world who gathered every day and every night outside of the Bella Center, bringing the needs of the poor and vulnerable to the ears of those in power, and giving encouragement and support to the delegates from less powerful places. God is working through these people and through all of us whose words and actions bring the needs of all people – and all species – to the attention of the rest of the world.

This may not look like a success, just as Mary’s baby in the manger didn’t look like a king. God works with whatever is available, and what is available are people of faith who are willing to look at the science of climate change, and look at God’s children who will be most severely affected by climate change, and then do what we can to help. Mary had no power or influence, and yet because of her faith, God was able to use Mary to become Incarnate and change everything for all of us.

The weather in central Nebraska today was sunny and warmer than it has been in several days. With beautiful snow cover still on most of the fields, a big blue sky, and the sound of running water from melting ice and snow, our souls might well magnify the Lord out of sheer joy in God’s creation. Climate scientists tell us that this is a critical time for the future of our climate, and of the planet to which human life is adapted. This is the time for people of faith who find joy in God’s creation and comfort in God’s promises to listen carefully, watch carefully, and see where God is calling us to speak and act.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Advent 3: Despair and Hope

The decisions made in the next couple of days at the climate talks in Copenhagen will be of great importance to all of us, but their effects will initially be felt most keenly by people from places like island nations and Bangladesh who came to Copenhagen with hope for an agreement that might save their homes. At this point, it's difficult for some people to stay hopeful, as the probability of reaching a significant agreement appears to be lessening.

How do we remain hopeful given the possibility that the world’s response to climate change will be too little and too late? What is the Christian response as we face the historically unique possibility of witnessing the social, economic, cultural, and spiritual consequences of inaction, the unraveling of our ways of life on a worldwide scale?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is in Copenhagen. Archbishop Tutu’s experience in the fight against apartheid in South Africa has helped him develop wisdom about being hopeful in situations that appear to be hopeless. The Hopenhagen blog for December 15 provides video clips of Archbishop Tutu talking about what gives him hope this week.

Our lessons for the Third Sunday of Advent have been good companions while following the climate talks. The short passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Philippians 4:4-7) tells us to rejoice and not worry about anything; Paul says “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God”. There is part of the answer to these difficult questions: pray. Pray for the people participating in the climate conference, for the heads of state who will make the final decisions, for the people with little power who will feel the effects of climate change first and worst, and for a change of heart – repentance – when we are tempted to put our own comfort ahead of the basic needs of others.

In our Gospel lesson (Luke 3:7-18) John the Baptist talked about repentance. In my sermon this Sunday, I was not speaking directly about the climate talks, but it was in the back of my mind as I wrote about hope and despair. No matter what the issue, our call as Christians seems to be to a call to witness, to really look at, the places where there is darkness or despair. As we walk through the darkness, we are supported by our faith that the darkness cannot overcome the light of Christ. I believe our call at this time is to proclaim both the truth about what is at stake as the nations decide on a response to the climate crisis and the message of hope grounded in our faith.

Advent 3C: In the Bleak Midwinter
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6); Luke 3:7-18 (and the Godly Play version of the angel’s visit to the shepherds)
Preached at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Grand Island, Nebraska, December 13, 2009

It’s good to see so many folks dug out from this week’s snowstorm and able to get here this morning. Little did we know last Sunday that our Tuesday and Wednesday evening church activities would be cancelled this week, children would be home from school, and many other plans changed. I was relieved early Tuesday evening to find out that the earliest morning classes at Hastings College had been cancelled already, as I was wondering how I would get from our house to campus for my 9:00 class. If I’d had to, I could have gotten there on foot if no other way, but it would have been a very difficult and very cold walk, and I was more than happy not to attempt it.

Looking out Wednesday morning after more snow had fallen and it had all been blown around by strong winds, one of my favorite Christmas hymns came to mind, Hymn #112, ‘In the bleak midwinter..’, that beautiful combination of Christina Rossetti’s words and Gustav Holst’s music. “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.”
This morning, though, we are singing Advent hymns and thinking about John the Baptist: “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry announces that the Lord is nigh…” Our Gospel lesson is John the Baptist at his most prophetic, referring to the crowds who have shown up to be baptized as a “brood of vipers” – the children of snakes – and calling everyone to repentance, to a radical change of heart that will become evident in their everyday choices and actions. John says that the one coming after him will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire, and follows this with a very intimidating exhortation about Christ separating the metaphorical wheat from the chaff, in which it becomes very clear that we do not want to part of the chaff. After all of this, which does not at first hearing sound like “tidings of comfort and joy”, Luke writes: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

We heard another part of Luke’s Gospel today from our children as they told us about the angel coming to the shepherds. Most of us are more familiar with this story, and it sounds more like Good News to us. We’re more comfortable with angels and shepherds, but part of that comfort might be that familiarity has lessened the impact of the prophetic element of this story. The announcement of Christ’s birth came to the shepherds first, not to kings or high priests or the people who lived in comparative comfort in town. Shepherds were poor people who lived outside the walls of the town with the sheep, and sheep are some of the smelliest creatures on God’s green Earth.

It must have been surprising at the least, and perhaps even scandalous, that the shepherds would be the first ones told about the birth of the Messiah. But people who knew and understood Scripture would not have been surprised, because the Hebrew prophets repeatedly talk about God’s care for the outcast, for the people who inhabit the margins of society because that’s where people with more power and wealth have pushed them. In our passage from Zephaniah this morning, the prophet announces God’s message of hope: “I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.” So this morning we have an angel telling the shepherds about the birth of God’s son, and we have John the Baptist saying that people who have clothing and food must share with those who have nothing, and those with some degree of power – tax collectors and soldiers, for example – must not abuse that power.

The angel says something else, though: “Do not be afraid. Be joyful.” Again we hear an echo of the prophetic voice; Zephaniah says, “The king of Israel is in your midst…Do not fear,” and in our Canticle Isaiah says “Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid.” These prophetic messages bring hope, but that hope often comes intertwined with information or commands that can make us fearful. John’s message, while meant to literally put the fear of God into us, is ultimately hopeful: We can’t do anything about our ancestors or even who we ourselves have been in the past, but what’s important, says John, isn’t the past but what we do now and in the future. We’re invited to repent and live lives that bear good fruit, lives that show we are wheat to be gathered into God’s granary, people living into the Reign of God.

The prophet’s message is always a message of hope because it’s ultimately a message of God’s faithfulness. We not only have nothing to fear when God is with us, but acting out of fear prevents us from responding to God’s faithfulness in a way that moves us from despair to hope, from darkness to light. The prophet’s message is a message of hope, but it’s also a message that calls for a response from us, a call to deep faith that results in good fruits. The prophet’s message in whatever point in history tells it like it is; it doesn’t sugarcoat or deny the reality of the way things are right now. Looking at the reality of our lives and the effects our choices have on Christ’s beloved poor around the world requires us to be open to experiencing uncomfortable emotions like grief and despair. We might grieve the loss of familiar and comfortable ways that we must give up so that others might live; like Ebenezer Scrooge, we might despair when we look outside of our own small worlds and let ourselves see the reality of other people’s lives, and, in our point in history, when we learn about the effects of our lives on the oceans, the air, and other species.

But we have to be willing to walk through the discomfort and darkness of despair to get to hope; a hope based on burying our heads in the sand isn’t hope at all but denial. Just as I was happy to avoid the discomfort of walking through the snow and bitter cold to get to campus, we are understandably reluctant to experience the discomfort of walking through despair to get to hope.

Advent is a time when we hear the prophetic message in our Sunday readings and in our Daily Office lectionary. The Daily Office this week included readings from Amos and Haggai, difficult messages for people of their time to hear, but messages that were ultimately full of hope, full of the promise of God’s faithfulness to a repentant people. Haggai (Haggai 1:5-6) starts out with this: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.” Yet Haggai moves from this portrait of [in Thoreau’s words] “lives of quiet desperation” to a promise of blessing to a newly obedient people.

The Church calls us to hear the prophet’s message today as well, to hear the words that God is speaking to us in our time. In Advent, the Church calls us to step back a bit and set aside time to enter the silence so we can hear the still, small voice; the Church calls us to enter the darkness so that we can more clearly see the Light of Christ. Advent is about listening to the prophetic call, about hearing the message of hope as we anticipate Christ’s birth and his coming again, and it’s also about choosing our response to a faithful and loving God. But that’s what Christmas is about also: our response to God becoming Incarnate and saying, “Follow me”.

The repentance to which John the Baptist calls us is not simply a matter of adding a few charitable acts to our to-do lists, good though it is to do that. This call is to something deeper, something internal, a profound change of heart. It’s a call to genuine generosity, kindness, compassion, and love. It’s a call to give our fears a nod and then joyfully go ahead and go where Christ calls us to serve as his body in the world – to see with the eyes of Christ, to hear with the ears of Christ, to think with the mind of Christ, to speak with the voice of Christ, and to serve with the hands of Christ.

The last verse of ‘In the bleak midwinter’ talks about how we can respond to our twofold awareness of our spiritual poverty that points to our need for repentance, along with the joy in our hearts when we hear the Good News of God’s promises and Christ’s birth: “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wiseman, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him – give my heart.”
Don’t be afraid; be joyful! God’s promises assure us that when we choose to walk into and look at the dark places where we are called to bring the light of the Gospel, our faithful and loving God will be with us, and Christ will light the way. Amen.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Heat and Snow

Most of Nebraska is snow-covered and very cold today. Every county except for the Panhandle has some sort of winter weather alert, and many counties are under blizzard warnings. Earlier in the day, before the wind picked up, I went outside to see what it was like. Everything was very quiet, as few people were out and about and the snow muffled whatever sounds there were. All I heard was some birdsong. There were juncos under my feeder and in the bushes around our yard, a pair of cardinals with their feathers fluffed out for warmth, and a nuthatch walking up and down the trunk of our hackberry tree.

No doubt when people watch the news this evening and see some story about the climate conference in Copenhagen, they will remark – some jokingly and some very seriously – that there doesn’t seem to be much global warming going on. Global warming, of course, refers to the worldwide climate; we know that general warming might indeed result in colder than normal weather for some locales. This is why some people prefer the term ‘climate change’. But what we really need to keep in mind is that climate scientists look at overall trends. Just as one child with short stature doesn’t disprove the observation that American children today are taller than children were in my generation, a cold week, month, or season doesn’t disprove the observation that global temperatures are rising.

At the Copenhagen climate conference today, Michel Jarraud, the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, said that so far – nine years into the decade, that is – 2000-2009 is the warmest decade on record. The BBC account of his remarks includes a video clip in which Mr. Jarraud emphasizes the importance of taking action now.

Also from today’s conference , the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, says he is optimistic that a “robust” agreement can be reached at this month’s conference. His hopeful outlook is echoed in a lovely reflection written by Sr. Joan Brown, OSF, who talks about this conference as a light of hope in the darkness this Advent season. Sr. Joan Brown, the Director of New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light, is in Copenhagen as an observer with other people of faith, bringing a moral and spiritual presence to the talks. She is writing a series of reflections from Copenhagen, available here on the Interfaith Power and Light website.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Advent 2: Wilderness, Joy, and Light

Today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 3: 1-6 , begins by placing the story of John the Baptist in a very specific time: the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius. It’s further anchored in time by information about other rulers in power at the time – Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanius – and the high priests Annas and Caiphas. When it comes to place, the passage is much more vague: “the word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness”. It goes on to tell us that this part of the wilderness is the region around the Jordan River, it doesn’t get any more specific than that. This is, after all, a true wilderness, a place without roads or place names.

What’s going on with Tiberius and Herod and all the rest is less important in the wilderness than it is in the villages and towns. Perhaps that’s why John was in the wilderness: away from all the activity and historical concerns, he could hear God’s voice and become prepared for his prophetic role in the life of Jesus, a role that eventually took him out of his wilderness obscurity and brought him squarely to the attention of Herod.

Throughout the Gospels, there are times when Jesus goes out of the towns and villages to get away and pray. He doesn’t stay there forever, but comes back refreshed and ready to resume his work. There is the temporal element of Sabbath in this, but also a spatial element. Getting away, going into the wilderness, is a spiritual necessity. Having wilderness of some sort, places where we can get away from lights and the noise of machinery, places where our feet can touch the ground instead of concrete, where we see things in natural light, and where we can hear the sounds of birds and insects, of the wind and water is not a luxury. We know now that such places are necessary to the health of our planet, and especially important to the health of our atmosphere. Today’s lesson reminds us that wilderness is also necessary to our spiritual health, to our being whole human beings who desire to be in relationship with God.

Our parish’s Christmas Eve children’s pageant will be based this year on the Godly Play curriculum. During each of the Sundays of Advent, the children are presenting one of the four pieces of the pageant. This morning’s Godly Play story was about the Holy Family. Joseph talked about feeling the weight of his responsibilities, and Mary said she thought the baby would be born soon and admitted to feeling worried. Then the angel appeared, a very confident angel whose words brooked no dissent: “Don’t be afraid, but be joyful!”

This is also the message the angels will bring to the shepherds, and that an angel will give to the women who go to the tomb after the crucifixion. It’s a message that can keep us from despair as we work to heal the damage we humans have done to our planet: Don’t do this work out of fear, but out of joy in God’s wonderful creation. When we stay focused on the wonder and beauty of creation, we have both motivation for doing the work and nourishment for our souls.

A story today from Associate Press writer Arthur Max shines a light of hope into the gloom that seemed to surround the Copenhagen climate talks as expectations were lowered and the U.S. Senate failed to get a climate bill passed before the talks. The story, " UN says climate finale may have happy ending” notes several recent developments that indicate that the nations will be able to reach agreements that will allow us to keep global warming under control. One of the very hopeful signs is that President Obama is now planning to attend the conference at its end, when other heads of state will be present to help decide on any agreements, instead of at the conference’s beginning. This indicates that there is some sense that there may indeed be something substantive for heads of state to consider as the conference is ending.

It seems especially fitting to find signs of hope during this season of Advent, as we prepare to welcome the Christ and “let heaven and nature sing”!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

More about climate change in Nebraska

Reports from this evening's panel discussion about climate change in Nebraska tell about a lively discussion. Joe Duggan's article posted on gives some examples of the sorts of changes scientists expect to see here in Nebraska.

Nebraska Public Radio interviewed some of the panelists earlier. You can hear that story here; this report talks about some of the changes such as the northward drift of habitats that are already being observed.

It's heartening to see more information about the effects of climate change in our own state being made accessible to the general public. Let's pray that this information can be truly heard and understood, and that we might have the wisdom and will to use it to make good decisions.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Advent 1: Interpreting the Signs

The Gospel lesson yesterday for the First Sunday of Advent was Luke 21: 25-36. In this passage, Jesus is talking about the signs of the coming of the Son of Man. He tells a parable, pointing out that when the fig trees and other trees begin to get new young leaves in the spring, people know that summer is near; in the same way, if people pay attention to the signs around them and know how to interpret them, they will know when Christ is there among them. Being aware of the signs – really seeing them – will help us know what is happening. In describing this time, Jesus talks about the fear and distress that people will experience, but he also tells his followers to stand up and raise their heads high, because all of these things mean that their redemption is near. There’s nothing to fear for the people who recognize Christ and have chosen to follow him, nothing to fear for people who yearn to live into the reign of God.
As a Deacon, I’m prepared to proclaim the Gospel on Sunday mornings. As part of that preparation, I read the Gospel lesson at least a day ahead, both to catch any names I might want to check for pronunciation ahead of time and also to get a sense of the lesson so that I proclaim it in a way that makes its meaning as plain as possible. Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, I hadn't spent as much time thinking about yesterday’s lesson as I usually do, but I had looked it over a couple of days before. It must have been completely out of my thoughts, though, early yesterday morning when I got up and went downstairs to breakfast. I was checking the New York Times headlines online and saw a link to a set of four articles by writers from four different places -- Denmark, South Africa, Brazil, and Japan -- describing the climate changes they have experienced where they live. I had time to read the report from Japan and skim the others before leaving for church.

When I got to church and again looked over the Gospel lesson, I was struck by the concurrence of what I had read about the signs of climate change and the message of our Gospel passage for the day. We have signs of a coming time that will, if our failure to act allows it to come, produce fear and distress throughout the world, with floods, famines, droughts, and outbreaks of diseases. The signs are there; these four writers talk about climate phenomena that anyone living in these places can observe. Because they often happen gradually and over the course of a lifetime, it is easy to ignore the signs right around us. For my part, I have childhood memories of wanting to be excused from the dinner table on Thanksgiving as quickly as possible so that I could get bundled up and go out and play Fox and Geese in the snow with my brother and cousins. When I was home in Ohio this Thanksgiving, there was a wet snowfall that lasted half a day. There also was a lily outside the entrance to my mother’s apartment building that looked like it was ready to bloom; other people told me about pussy willows coming into bud and roses still blooming. When I went into the woods, there were many green plants still growing through this year’s leaf layer on the forest floor.

Besides these anecdotal signs, of course, we have statistical analysis from climate scientists. (A recent Associate Press article found on the Forecast Earth section of The Weather Channel’s website summarizes some of the scientific findings nicely.) The Copenhagen conference is approaching with some encouraging signs that some progress might be made, but also with the knowledge that even the best of what look like the politically possible scenarios won’t bring about enough of a reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to prevent further warming.
We Christians can bring a different perspective to this situation, one of hope. There is the hope that if we pay attention to the signs, if we open our eyes to the reality unfolding right now and have compassion for those who stand to suffer the most from the effects of climate change, if we do all we can to live more responsibly and advocate for more responsible decisions from those in power, that we can live through this time with courage and hope, standing up with our heads raised high. Recognizing the profound severity of the problem is not the same as living without hope; our faith in the healing power of God’s love can empower us to find a way through this. When we learn to live in a way that makes life sustainable for all people and for all the living things that share this planet, we will find ourselves “further up and further in” as we journey into the reign of God.

What are the expected effects of climate change on Nebraska and its wildlife? The Nebraska Wildlife Federation is holding a public forum tomorrow evening, December 1, at 6:30 on UNL’s East Campus to talk about the effect of climate change on wildlife and agriculture. More information is available from this article from the Lincoln Journal Star.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving!

Our Thanksgiving holiday is a time when we Americans focus on being thankful for our blessings. Our tradition of gathering with family and friends for a big dinner on this day makes the blessings of family, friends, and food to eat some of the first that come to mind when we think about the things for which we are thankful.

My family usually gathers in Ohio at Thanksgiving time. Because I grew up in Ohio and first experienced the wonders of God’s creation here, I’m always thankful to be able to spend some time outdoors in my first “eco-location”. The reminder of those earliest experiences of wonder – the bird calls, the light in November, the particular sorts of trees and plants – are a reminder that no matter what our circumstances or where we go, there are some elemental things for which to be grateful. Even when we are far from “nature”, when we find ourselves in suburban sprawl or urban density, there are reminders of the beauty and wonder of God’s creation. The plain fact that we exist and that the world exists, that there is something rather than nothing, is the stuff of wonder.

Our diocesan Stewardship Commission is now called the Commission on Gratitude and Generosity, reflecting the spiritual importance of cultivating grateful hearts, which produce generous spirits. We cultivate grateful hearts by doing daily what the secular calendar calls us to do once a year: intentionally looking for the things in our lives for which we can be grateful.

As we cultivate grateful hearts, we find ourselves becoming more whole. Gratitude for the relationships we have with God, with other people, and with all of creation makes us more aware of the nature of these relationships and of the way God, human beings, and the rest of creation are interconnected. The generosity of spirit that results brings us to deeper love; it brings us to a more profound reverence toward God, a deeper compassion towards other people, and an expanded concern for the way we care for creation.

When we enter into the spirit of Thanksgiving, we become aware of our relationship with creation; we become aware of the impact of our choices on God’s creation, on the other people with whom we share our planet, and on our spiritual connection with our loving Creator God. And that's a wonderful thing to celebrate today and every other day of the year!

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Greener Annual Council

The Diocese of Nebraska’s Annual Council was held last Thursday through Saturday in North Platte. Thanks to Nancy Striebel and her team from our host parish, Church of Our Savior, we were able to recycle plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and paper at Annual Council. I heard several positive comments about the recycling; many of us are used to recycling at home and at work, and were very pleased to have the opportunity to do so during this meeting.

Two of the resolutions that were passed at Annual Council have to do with the environment. The 76th General Convention this summer endorsed the Earth Charter. One of our resolutions was a Response to the Earth Charter; it encourages each congregation in the Diocese to “perform an audit of their use of paper, plastic, water, furnishings, etc., and take action to reduce, reuse, recycle, and reclaim resources.” Another resolution that is a local response to an action of General Convention is the affirmation and adoption of the Five Marks of Mission articulated by the Anglican Consultative Council. One of those five marks is this: “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth”. Both of these resolutions call us to be more intentional in our stewardship of God’s creation.

A growing awareness of environmental concerns was evident in several reports and in conversations with people. There was a presentation from the EGG (Episcopalians Going Green) team from St. Matthew’s in Lincoln; some of the Sowers Fund projects also featured activities such as reusing, recycling, and gardening. People stopping by the Green Sprouts display shared efforts their parishes were making to be greener, while others shared their intention to lead their parish in that direction.

The Green Sprouts presentation talked about connecting with nature as a necessity for our spiritual nurture and health; about our activities during 2009; and issued an invitation to have The Conversation, to talk about environmental climate change in a political climate where a recent Pew poll found fewer Americans believing that global warming exists or is a serious problem even as the scientific evidence has become very strong. Where is the Church called? How do we keep the conversation open?

For parishes wanting to be more intentional about environmental stewardship but not knowing where to begin, the following information was available at the Green Sprouts display:

Ideas to begin greening a parish…

Turn off lights that aren’t needed.

Change from conventional lightbulbs to compact fluorescent lightbulbs.

Reduce the use of paper. Use both sides of the paper when making multipage copies. Use e-mail in place of paper mail for parishioners who are online.

Unplug computers and other office equipment at night.

Fix dripping faucets.

Turn down the thermostat in the winter; turn it up in the summer.

Recycle paper, plastic, metal – whatever you can.

Use mugs instead of Styrofoam or paper cups at coffee hour. Use the dishes in the kitchen cupboards for parish dinners, or have people bring their own place settings to potlucks.

Consider purchasing Eco-Palms for Palm Sunday.

Have a Green Fair around the Rogation Days or St. Francis Day. Plan activities that highlight environmental stewardship. Plant a tree; worship outdoors; have a contest to see who can find the most creative ways to reuse existing items.

Organize carpools for the parish. Where possible, encourage parishioners to walk or bike to church.

Reduce or eliminate the use of lawn chemicals; landscape with plants that won’t require much water. Create landscaping with stewardship in mind: “A wild area in a churchyard does not show that no one cares about the place. In fact, it shows just the opposite.”**

Talk about environmental issues. How do they connect with our baptismal covenant? How does the Millennium Development Goal of environmental sustainability connect with the other MDG’s?

Involve the Sunday school and youth groups, and let them teach the adults some things about caring for creation.


**From How Many Lightbulbs Does It Take To Change A

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

O Ye Ice and Snow

“A grand cosmic vision” is the way Robert Alter describes Psalm 148 in a footnote to his translation of the psalm. (The Book of Psalms, trans. Robert Alter) This psalm of praise, one of the Evening Psalms for the Daily Office yesterday on All Saints Day, begins with the heavens and the heavenly beings, the angels, and then moves on to the Earth and the creatures of the Earth, including human beings.

I thought of the middle part of this psalm – “Praise God from the earth, you sea-monsters and all deeps; Fire and hail, snow and fog, tempestuous wind, doing God’s will” – when I happened across three different news stories about ice and snow today. Psalm 148 in turn reminded me of Canticle 1, The Song of Creation, in The Book of Common Prayer. This canticle is familiar to those of us who grew up with Morning Prayer as the principal service most Sundays: “O ye ice and snow, bless ye the Lord; praise him and magnify him forever."
The three news stories were similar in talking about places where ice and snow are melting at extraordinarily rapid rates. They are about three different locations: Mount Everest, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Arctic region, including the North Pole. A story from the Associated Press tells about plans for the Nepali cabinet to meet on Mount Everest as a way to increase awareness of the threat from global warming, which is causing glaciers to melt in the Himalayas. The melting ice is forming lakes whose walls could burst and flood villages below. The second story, from CNN, tells about how the glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro are melting at an increasing rate. The ice cap at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro could be gone within two decades at the current rate of melting. The third report, from Reuters via MSNBC, is about the ice covering the Arctic Ocean. David Barber from the University of Manitoba spoke to the Canadian Parliament last week and told them about the disappearance of “old ice”, ice that has formed over a number of years, in the Arctic. The ice that is left is thinner new ice, ice that is easily broken. The multiyear ice reached thicknesses of 260 feet; the new ice is 20 inches thick. This story reports that “An increasing number of experts feel the North Pole will be ice free in summer by 2030 at the latest, for the first time in a million years.”

This means that by 2030 there may be no ice at the North Pole in the summer and no ice cap on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. The same year has often been mentioned as the limit for glaciers in Glacier National Park in the United States, though some scientists now believe 2020 is a more accurate prediction for the disappearance of those glaciers.

The loss of ice in these places and many other spots around the world have effects on entire ecological systems, including economic effects on the people who live near these places. Concern for people is enough of a reason for us to care more about the accelerated melting of glaciers and ice packs.

But I suspect part of the sadness I experience when I read about and reflect on what is happening is grief at the loss of a piece of that cosmic vision, the great expanses of ice and snow that, along with all of creation, are bidden to praise God. Somehow the diminishment of glaciers -- and the loss of many species of plants and animals, the acidification and pollution of the oceans, and all the damage done to creation, some of it soon to be beyond the point of restoration -- diminishes the fullness of the praises we offer to God. However, this is not surprising when we think about the disconnect between praising God with our voices while ignoring and even contributing to the destruction of God’s creation. Our spiritual health as well as our physical well-being depends on our acknowledging the harm we have done to the Earth, and repenting and changing. For the glaciers at least, the time left to do this is short.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Truly Alive

The Gospel lesson for All Saints Day this year is the end of the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11: 32-44). After Jesus calls to Lazarus, who comes out of the tomb still bound with burial cloths, the story ends with Jesus saying “Unbind him, and let him go.”

I’ve been thinking about what binds us as individuals, parishes, dioceses, and a society. What are the norms and expectations that keep us from flourishing, truly living, as we might? In particular, what binds us and makes it so difficult to accept and begin to make the changes needed to deal with pollution and climate change?

Chuck Morello of the Episcopal Ecological Network (EpEN) sent out a message this week that originated with Skip Vilas of the Diocese of Newark, a founder of EpEN and member of the EpEN leadership team. (Click on Episcopal Ecological Network above or under Good Green Resources in the right hand column of this blog to see more about the network and to sign up for e-mail updates from EpEN.) The message was about an article entitled “Dr. Rowan Williams says climate crisis a chance to become human again” that appeared in The Guardian on October 13.

In this article, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggests an answer to the question of what binds us. In an address at Southwark Cathedral, the Archbishop said that we have allowed ourselves to become “addicted to fantasies about prosperity and growth, dreams of wealth without risk and profit without cost”.

When our primary focus shifts from Christian discipleship to quick and easy ways to build or hold onto wealth, we bind ourselves with self-centeredness, love of money, and conformity to the marketplace. These things are binding or restricting because they keep us from doing what our deeper, better selves long to do: following Christ and living in a way that is fitting for people whose primary identity is Christian discipleship.

Changing the way we live so that life as we know it on this planet can continue for future generations does more than benefit the environment and, in turn, the people who stand to suffer if environmental deterioration goes unchecked. It also helps us to create better lives for ourselves, lives centered on values that nourish our souls. Rowan Williams says: "If I ask what's the point of my undertaking a modest amount of recycling my rubbish or scaling down my air travel, the answer is not that this will unquestionably save the world within six months, but in the first place it's a step towards liberation from a cycle of behaviour that is keeping me, indeed most of us, in a dangerous state — dangerous, that is, to our human dignity and self-respect."

Our lessons for All Saints Day also include Psalm 24. Remembering the first verse of this psalm, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein”, can help free us to be good stewards of our planet. We are free to follow Christ and live fully into our humanity when we remember that God created us and the world in which we live, and that the fullness and flourishing of our lives depends on staying in a whole and healthy relationship with God and with God’s creation.

In the end, making the changes we know we need to make is a good thing not only – and possibly not even principally – because it is good for “the Earth” in the abstract or even for our fellow creatures, human and nonhuman, who stand to suffer the most from environmental deterioration, but because it is necessary for the health and vitality of our own souls.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

350 Prayers for the Earth Update

The International Day of Climate Action, October 24, will begin in Nebraska in 27 hours. Since yesterday's post about our planned action to offer collectively 350 prayers for the Earth, there has been a very good and encouraging response by e-mail and through our Facebook event site. Twenty people have responded; eight of them have promised to offer a total of 168 prayers, and the others will be praying for the Earth but haven't attached a number to those prayers. In all, the people who have responded plan to offer at least 180 prayers for the Earth on Saturday.

Three participants are planning to offer a prayer each waking hour during the day; another will pray at each meal. Someone who prays with Anglican prayer beads is planning to pray an entire prayer bead cycle -- 100 prayers! Fr. Peek reports that each person at the youth confirmation retreat at our parish, St. Stephen's, will offer a prayer, for a total of fifteen.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a column in USA Today in strong support of and Climate Action Day. He compares this unified global effort to address the issue of climate change to the unified struggle that finally brought an end to apartheid in South Africa.

Photos wanted
As of 9:00 this evening, reports that 4,548 actions are being planned in a total of 174 countries around the world. As these actions take place, photos will be posted on the 350 website and in other media outlets. If you are praying with other people and can have a photo taken of the group, or if you have another photo to share that somehow illustrates the act of praying for the Earth, please send it along to me to include in the report of our action. All the photos should include the number 350; some possibilities are a poster in the background that says '350', the three numerals taped onto people or objects in the photos, or created with votive candles on a table.

Power of prayer
Jesus said that when two or three are gathered together, he is there among us. Even though our Saturday prayer group will be scattered geographically, we will be together in spirt, and there is power in several people praying with the same intention. The task of addressing global climate change is huge and urgent, and can be daunting. It is essential that people of faith continue to pray for our Earth and for those who can lead us through a solution. If you haven't signed up to participate in 350 Prayers for the Earth and would like to join us, read yesterday's post in this blog or send a message to

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

350 Prayers for the Earth

International Day of Climate Action

This Saturday, October 24, is the International Day of Climate Action organized by . As of today, over 4,000 events are planned in 170 countries around the world. The idea is to increase awareness. The upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for life as we have known it to continue on the Earth is 350 parts per million (ppm). Right now we have about 387 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. To care for humankind and our planet, we need to change the way we live so that we can decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Events for the Day of Climate Action are planned in Omaha and Lincoln, and more events are being added daily. You can search for an event near you at .

If we had an event for the entire Diocese of Nebraska that brought us together in one physical location, we would have people driving great distances and sending more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. However, it’s important for people of faith to add our voices to this call to right action on the part of our leaders and right living on the part of everyone, and those of us who live some distance from any other events need some other way to participate.

What can we do on October 24? We can pray, wherever we are. Pray the prayer on p. 827 of The Book of Common Prayer “For the Conservation of Natural Resources”, or the prayer on p. 828 “For the Future of the Human Race”. Pray for the people who will meet in Copenhagen in December to work toward a world climate treaty. Pray for the people who stand in the way of immediate harm from floods and disease and hunger related to climate change. Pray for the birds or the sea creatures or land animals. Pray for trees. Or pray a simple prayer: “Thank you, God, for the Earth” or “Holy One, give us wisdom and courage to be good stewards”.

Let’s pray at least 350 prayers for the Earth this Saturday. If you plan to participate, leave a comment at the end of this post, or send a message to . You might indicate how many prayers you expect to pray. (I know some folks in our diocese use Anglican prayer beads; these could help us keep count.) We might have ten of us praying 35 prayers or 35 of us praying ten prayers!

Our prayers for the Earth will be listed as an event for Climate Action Day. Since we need to give a location, I’ll list it as Grand Island, but I hope we have lots of folks from all over Nebraska joining us. And if you follow the Green Sprouts blog from somewhere else and want to be part of this, prayers know no geographical boundaries. Just let us know you plan to participate so we can have some idea of how many prayers are being prayed!

In this critical time for the environment, prayers every day for those making decisions that will affect all of our lives for generations to come are more important than ever. It’s one of the best contributions we can make as people who know and trust in God, and who value the good creation that God created through love.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Nebraska Green Sprouts: Blog Action Day 09

Today bloggers around the world are participating in Blog Action Day, a huge conversation of sorts, all writing about climate change from the perspective of each blog’s topic. This blog is about creation care, about caring for the Earth with the understanding that the Earth is part of God’s creation. More particularly, this is a blog about creation care in the context of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska.

Nebraska Episcopalians have all sorts of reasons to care about climate change. We are, after all, not only Episcopalians who live in Nebraska, but Christians, Americans, parents and grandparents, and part of the family of God’s children that lives all over this planet. But what do we bring to the conversation as Nebraska Episcopalians in particular?

As Nebraskans, we have a strong connection to the land. Nebraska is still a primarily rural state. We are aware of the weather; we know the effects of unseasonable weather patterns, of storms and temperature fluctuations and rainfall patterns on our lives and livelihoods. As farmers and hunters, Nebraskans are aware of the migration patterns of animals. And we are in the heart of the spring flyway for many migratory birds, including the Sandhill cranes, and are aware of the effects climate change has already had on some bird populations and the potential for more dramatic effects in the future.

Several of the theological reasons for caring about climate change can be summarized by consideration of the Great Commandment Jesus gave us: Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Loving God with our entire being entails sharing God’s love for creation, and being reverent towards God’s good creation. God gave humankind dominion over creation, and climate change brings a great threat of species extinction. Engaging our hearts, souls, and minds in caring for the Earth is part of loving God the Creator.

Love for our neighbors calls us to focus on the effects of climate change on human beings. Flooding, famine, and other effects of climate change on human populations tend to have their first and worst effects on the poorest people of the world. Caring about the people whose homes and lives are threatened by climate change is part of loving our neighbors in the global community.

The Episcopal Church endorses the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). One of the MDGs is to ensure environmental stability, which includes climate stability. The eight MDGs are interrelated, though; climate stability is bound up with the eradication of hunger, with combating malaria and other diseases, with developing global partnerships for development, and in reducing child mortality. The MDGs give Episcopalians a framework for loving our neighbors around the world, and point clearly to climate change as a focal point for truly caring about our brothers and sisters.

Our baptismal covenant binds us to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. Given the potential for climate change to widen the gap between poor people and rich people and to cause famine, flooding, the displacement of large numbers of people, and possibly wars as resources become scarcer, our baptismal covenant calls us to pay attention to climate change. The baptismal covenant also binds us to resist evil and, whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to God. The Catechism in The Book of Common Prayer says that sin is “the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” Choosing our own convenience over a healthy relationship with God’s creation is sin.

I’ve had wonderful conversations with people in the Diocese of Nebraska who are very clear about the interconnectedness of creation care, love of neighbor, and love of God. People who care for ranchland, grow crops, and care for gardens understand the importance of creation care; people who know the beauty of Nebraska sunsets, the starry skies in the Sandhills, and the wonder of the annual crane migration understand that God’s creation is good and that God’s love for us and our love for God are connected to our experiences of the goodness of creation.

You can go to to follow the conversation about climate change from the context of other blogs with a wide variety of topics. The website also suggests ways that people who feel moved to take action to curb greenhouse gas emissions can get involved.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Hackberry Tree Parable

Wealth, No Camel, A Squirrel, and A Raptor

There was a little bit of drama in the hackberry tree in our yard this week. Thinking about the lectionary readings for tomorrow, I started seeing this drama in terms of the Gospel story (Mark 10: 17-31) about the rich man who wants to know what he needs to do in order to inherit eternal life. The answer Jesus gives, which shocks the man and makes him grieve, was “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Then Jesus goes on to tell the disciples something that’s as daunting for us middle-class Americans as it would have been for this rich man: it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. No camels showed up in my yard this week, but a couple of less exotic creatures did. Given the appearance of these two acting out a little parable in keeping with this week's Gospel reading, it wouldn’t have completely surprised me to see a camel come sauntering down the street.

I was out on our side porch at lunchtime on Friday – back before winter came blowing into Nebraska -- and heard a ruckus up in the hackberry tree. I thought a squirrel had broken a small branch, which happens sometimes (since they sometimes gnaw on the branches as they sit on them), and looked up to see the underside of a big bird of prey – some sort of raptor with white feathers on its breast, which was the part of the bird I could see -- who was crashing down through the branches. The falling raptor dropped a squirrel -- splat -- on our driveway. As soon as the bird let go of the squirrel, it was able to get itself straightened out and it soared up and flew away. It all happened so fast that I couldn’t see the bird well enough to identify it. Whatever it was, this squirrel must have been fighting enough to interfere with the bird’s ability to fly off with it.

The squirrel ran really fast to the tree and ran way up to where there’s a nest. Lots of other squirrels appeared and chattered their alarm, but above the sound of that I heard what I can only describe as squirrel sobs from up in the nest, a softer, very rhythmic form of squirrel chatter. After the others quieted down, clusters of these squirrel sobs continued off and on for several minutes. The poor little thing was terrified, and possibly hurt.

Birds of prey most often succeed in hunting the weakest animals, the most vulnerable. The squirrel this one chose wasn’t as weak as it appeared evidently, and gave the bird a great deal of trouble. What’s interesting in light of the Gospel story is that it wasn’t just in letting go of something that the bird was able to fly freely again, but in letting go of the smaller, weaker creature on which it was preying. This little drama as it relates to the Gospel lesson wasn’t only about the raptor and its need to let go of a difficult weight, but about the squirrel and its desire to survive. The Gospel story isn’t only about us and our need to be detached from things that get in the way of discipleship; it’s also about those who have less power, wealth, and strength but about whom Christ cares very much. We aren’t truly free of the things that weigh us down until we join Christ in caring for and about the poor and vulnerable. It isn’t enough to go off and take a vow of poverty and simplify our lives; true discipleship involves noticing and caring for people who have to worry more about not having enough than about having too much.

Part of good environmental stewardship is considering the people who are most affected by pollution and climate change, letting go of our environmentally harmful practices so that others can have life.

The Asia-Pacific region has had earthquakes, a deadly tsunami, and typhoons in recent weeks. This week in particular, while we are thinking about whether we can make an internal, spiritual shift to detach ourselves from our possessions and follow Christ, many people in the Philippines lost everything as mud rumbled down hillsides onto villages below. Climate scientists don’t know with certainty if the number and intensity of typhoons in recent years is a result of climate change, but they do expect that as climate change accelerates, we will see more and more storms of this sort in this part of the world.

If the stories from the Asia-Pacific region in recent weeks have touched your heart, consider making a donation to Episcopal Relief and Development. Click here for their most recent press release about responding to the multiple natural disasters in the Asia-Pacific region.

Monday, October 5, 2009

St. Francis, St. Paul, and Walruses

October 4 is the Feast of St. Francis, a day when many parishes invite people to bring the animals with whom they share their lives for a blessing. It’s a good opportunity to think about our relationship with our fellow creatures, and to appreciate the gift of both the domesticated dogs, cats, hamsters, turtles, and other pets that we know as part of our households, and also the wild animals that we know in a different way.

Those wild animals are of course affected by air and water pollution, habitat destruction, and climate change. Observation of changes in population size or shifts in animal behavior such as changes in migration patterns can help us notice changes in the environment. Reflection about the effects of pollution and climate change on our fellow creatures, both human and nonhuman, is appropriate as we remember St. Francis and the animals.

Today’s Daily Office reading from I Corinthians (I Corinthians 10:14-11:1) provides a revealing lens through which to look at some of the environmental news from the past week. “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other,” writes St. Paul. The selfishness – the clamoring for our own advantage – that is assumed to be acceptable in the political arena does not meet Paul’s standards for Christian conduct! As Paul might say, the assumption of egoism is lawful – even expected – but not necessarily beneficial.

The United States has been slow to do anything significant about climate change. We know that global warming will be slowed and perhaps eventually stopped only if we make some noticeable changes in the way we live. However, there is fear of change, even if it is change for the better. Part of the fear for some people is that some sort of perceived advantage – a monetary advantage, a convenience, or simply the comfort of things staying the same – will be lost.

At first glance, it looks like Paul’s admonition to seek the advantage of the other instead of our own advantage applies in this situation. If we listened to Paul, we might set aside those advantages we see ourselves having in favor of supporting new technologies and new habits. But here’s the interesting part: those who feel they would be giving up an advantage, making a sacrifice, to give some sort of advantage to others – both other people and our nonhuman companions on this planet -- would really be creating a greater advantage for themselves as well. While climate change affects the poorest people in the world first and worst, it will affect all of us eventually.

The idea Paul was addressing of one person having some sort of an advantage at the expense of another is part of a moral and political paradigm that simply doesn’t fit the truly global issue of climate change. When one part of the globe constituted the world as most people knew it in their lifetimes, and especially when our concerns really were with a specific area of the world – our own city-state, our own country, continent, or hemisphere -- we with more power and wealth could overlook the disadvantages of others and push them to the edge of our circumscribed worlds, where they could be out of sight and out of mind. All of us and all of creation have always been interconnected, but it was easier to pretend that wasn't the case.

When the composition of the air we all breathe and its effects on the waters of the Earth are the issues at stake, however, such a paradigm doesn’t make sense. However, we still forget, deny, try to avoid the reality of our interconnectedness with everyone and everything else. Somehow we still don’t grasp the failure of the old self-centered paradigm (as old as original sin), and we still suppose that our relatively short-term, local concerns – having automobiles that run on relatively cheap gasoline, for example – constitute an advantage or a good for us, when in reality they are turning our planet into a place where we will not be able to continue living at all as we have over the past century.

This week the New York Times reported that Carol Browner, the top White House official for climate and energy, said that there is virtually no chance that Congress will pass a climate bill before the world climate conference planned for December in Copenhagen. Another article reported on the effects of receding Arctic sea ice on Pacific walruses. With open water in recent summers instead of ice, the walruses have become crowded along shorelines and many are being crushed to death. The juxtaposition of these two stories was striking. When will we really wake up to the reality of what we are doing to ourselves and to the other creatures God has entrusted to our care?

Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog followed up on his New York Times story about the Pacific walruses. The post, “On Walruses and Warming”, included this video of a walrus stampede:

“Give us all a reverence for the earth as your own creation, that we may use its resources rightly in the service of others and to your honor and glory.” (Book of Common Prayer, Form IV Prayers of the People)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Synchronicity: Creation Care, Legislation, World Meetings, and the Gospel

Sometimes several things come together at once in a way that help us to see something we had overlooked or not seen clearly enough. For years, climate scientists have been warning us about global warming. For months, reports have appeared saying that the earlier predictions had been too conservative, and that climate change is happening more rapidly and dramatically than these scientists had expected.

Several things have happened in recent weeks that are helping more people become aware of the problem we face and the changes we could make that would lessen the severity of the problem. U.S. News has an article about the role of American religious groups in pushing for climate change legislation. Awareness of creation care as a fundamental piece of overall stewardship is growing. Out of that awareness has come action to urge the Senate to pass a major piece of climate change legislation this fall.

The timing of such a bill is important, as December brings the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen. You might recall from an earlier post that this conference is considered extremely important because of the point we have reached with climate change; this may be the last chance to begin to reverse climate change before its effects are devastating for life as we know it on our planet. There are more voices saying this now. In a piece called “Copenhagen or Bust” that appeared in the September 28, 2009 issue of Newsweek, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “If we miss this opportunity, there will be no second chance sometime in the future, no later way to undo the catastrophic damage to the environment we will cause.”

Leading up to the Copenhagen conference, there was a UN Summit on Climate Change held in New York on September 22. This was the biggest gathering ever of political leaders to discuss climate change, indicating the growing urgency and awareness of the issue. One hundred heads of state and governments gathered for this summit. President Nasheed of the Republic of the Maldives was one of the people who addressed the gathering. His island country is facing the possibility of disappearing as the oceans rise. His words are sobering:

The Gospel lesson for September 20 (Mark 9: 30-37) ended up being especially appropriate for a week in which such things were discussed at such a high level meeting. Preparing a sermon for St. Mark’s on the Campus for that Sunday, I thought about the people living on low-lying islands, in far northern villages built on melting permafrost, in the lowest-lying coastal areas around the world where so many of the poorest people in the world live. “Today’s lesson suggests that good discipleship calls for us to ask the hard questions, to set aside our own desires for status and power, and to welcome – to notice and build relationship with – the people who are most easily pushed aside and overlooked in our world. A big piece of discipleship today involves good stewardship of the environment, because the first and worst effects of pollution and climate change usually fall on the most vulnerable people in the world.”

These weeks that lead up to Copenhagen have more Good News from Mark that can help guide our decisions and thinking about climate change: the rich man’s difficulty in letting go of his treasure so he can live into the greater treasure of the kingdom of God, the importance of serving others instead of lording it over them, and the commandment to love God and one’s neighbor. These passages help us to find our way in a world in which we Americans are the people with wealth and power, and others in the world stand to lose all they have if we misuse our wealth and power.

The importance of the growing role of religious groups in the conversation about the environment may end up being not so much the addition of more voices urging our Senators – and our representatives at Copenhagen – to take action, important though that is, but the reminder of why we should care, and the voice of hope that God will give us the will and the means to do the right thing once we make the decision to be better stewards of God’s creation.

Meanwhile, more talks leading up to Copenhagen are occurring in Bangkok this week. The Philippines and Viet Nam are dealing with big floods from Typhoon Ketsana, and more storms are forming that could hit the Philippines again. There has been speculation that these huge rains could be related to climate change. That’s probably no more than speculation, but the sort of damage and loss of life we are seeing do give us a glimpse of what the future holds if we do nothing to avert major climate change.

Given everything that is happening this fall – all of the above along with things like the good opportunities to connect with God's creation in Nebraska in the fall, and our approaching Annual Council in North Platte – the plan here at Green Sprouts is to increase the frequency of posts on the blog for the next several weeks. Please send along anything that you think should be included in our conversation.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Learning Discipleship in the Grand Canyon

Sahra Harding, a third-year student at General Theological Seminary from the Diocese of Nebraska, gracioiusly agreed to write this week's post. Sahra shares some of what her experience living and working at the Grand Canyon this summer taught her about discipleship.


This past summer I had the opportunity to work at the Grand Canyon with a program for college students called A Christian Ministers in National Parks. As team leader for 16 undergraduate students who are currently involved with Christian ministry, I led theological discussion and mentored those interested in pursuing the field professionally. We came from different denominations and regions all over the country. For three months, we offered daily sunset worship services along the rim of the Canyon. I also worked for the park in their gift store in customer service, which was a fantastic opportunity for informal ministry. During my two years in seminary in New York city I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a disciple and uphold the principles of stewardship that are involved with that way of being. Working on a team, honoring God’s creation through regular worship, and sitting among the 180 million year old walls of the canyon taught me a lot about discipleship.

Living at the canyon lit all kinds of fires in my soul this summer. When walking bare foot on the bare earth, I felt the give in the dirt. I could sense the primal relationship we have with the dust, a truth about formation that we are reminded of each Lenten season. It is not the same experience of walking on the concrete, even with rubber soles; this just becomes two more layers of separation between who we are and the earth that created us. Being in constant movement and working to make Christ available to people through constant interaction requires a certain kind of energy. Of all the moments that spurred my growth this summer, both in the community, and when I was alone peering into the canyon, one in particular sticks out in my mind.

My final hike of the summer was to a site called Dripping Springs. This is a very difficult hike, more difficult than I expected. I was limited on time, and more than once I considered just stopping and turning back so that I would not be late for my afternoon obligations. Still, I was convinced I could make it if I just kept going and stopped standing still trying to peer ahead and find the final destination with my eyes, which could not be done, the Springs were that well hidden.

At one point the path changed and became much less clear. I suddenly heard someone yelling. I had not seen anyone on the path since I began walking; it is not a popular hike. I looked up to see a Ranger who was trying to call me back onto the path, which I had veered from without realizing it. She was headed in the opposite direction and had somehow spotted me losing my course. Hikers are frequently warned to not veer from the path because the Canyon is vast and steep and such excursions are often fatal. I worried that she thought I was being deviant. I quickly forgot my worry in the midst of my relief, though, because she gave me back a sense of direction. If she had not appeared right then, I would have surely gotten stuck and lost too much time to continue; I also might have run out of water and in that desert heat this is an ongoing concern. With help, I found the path again and started back up. Soon after she left, however, I lost the path again. I could hear the Springs, but I still could not see them. It seemed like the sound was coming from one direction, so I went that way figuring I didn’t need the path, but the further I went the harder it became to hear it and I soon found myself among a series of boulders that would be extremely difficult to get over. I decided I would have to climb straight up out of the pit and likely head back out of the canyon. It was steep and slippery with cactus everywhere, but I could not figure another way. Fortunately, at the top of the mound, I recognized the path again.

I found myself turning the whole adventure into a symbol for the journey of a disciple. This realization infused me with a sense of how often we try to find our way without consideration for the work that has been done before us for our sake and for the sake of all followers. Perhaps we do things without consideration of the impact it will have on what surrounds us. But the fact of the matter is that we do well to heed the instructions from those before us. We lose nothing in the journey because we are always the pioneer of our own soul. Christ is always waiting to be discovered in our midst, so why not permit ourselves to walk that way and save ourselves from unnecessary thirst?
When I came upon the Springs, the meeting was that much sweeter because I had joined the steps of so many to bring a sacred space into view; the site seemed full from that shared vision that so many diligent hikers had viewed, and now I had seen it too. A stream of water, the vitality of the earth, invited me to cool my face. The planet is not just a resource after all, not just some temporary holding cell for our souls to which we have no influence or connection; it is a living teacher and it speaks to us often. These times of global strain have made it clear to me that we must enter this cosmic conversation with the full force of Christian love and discipleship.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

All God's Children

One last unexpected summer trip for me coming right up against the beginning of fall semester has delayed this post a few days. It’s been an unusual start to the transition from summer toward fall for many of us given weather that is cooler and rainier than our usual, and a flu virus at the beginning of the school year. However, somehow we find ourselves at the beginning of September. Sitting here on my porch in Hastings, I’m already seeing monarch butterflies stopping by my coneflowers on their way south, and squirrels burying winter food. It’s time to transition to fall whether at school, in the parish, or at home.

Climate bill

I had thought my summer travels were all done when I got an invitation to a White House briefing on energy. This was a regional briefing for people from Midwestern and mid-Atlantic states. It was an opportunity for us to hear from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, and others from the administration about their energy agenda and the expected outcomes for consumers, agriculture, commerce, and the climate if the Senate approves HR 2454, the climate bill, this fall. Secretary Vilsack said that he has not seen this sort of opportunity for rural America in his lifetime. A preliminary analysis from the USDA’s Chief Economist of the economic impacts of HR 2454 for agriculture seems to bear out this optimism.

Copenhagen climate conference
Looking beyond fall into December, there is hope that a climate bill will be passed before President Obama goes to the UN climate conference in Copenhagen; it will be difficult for the United States to be in a leadership role at this conference if we don’t have some sort of significant legislation in place. More seriously for people of all nationalities, if this conference gets stalled and cannot reach a significant agreement among the nations that share this planet, it may be difficult or perhaps just plain too late to stop climate change before it reaches the point of having devastating effects on all living things on Earth.

More evidence of climate change
A study of the Arctic climate in yesterday's issue of Science magazine shows the magnitude of the response of the Arctic climate to global warming. An article by Andrew Revkin in the New York Times quotes Dr. Jonathan Overpeck, one of the study’s authors and a climate scientist at the University of Arizona: “The fast rate of recent warming is the scary part. It means that major impacts on Arctic ecosystems and global sea level might not be that far off unless we act fast to slow global warming.” Time is growing short to get serious about climate change.

The Christian response
Our readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday, though, suggest other reasons for Christians to advocate for changes in energy technology, transportation, agricultural practices, and many other areas of our lives so that the effects of climate change can be minimized. While every living thing on earth will be affected by climate change, among the human community the earliest effects and the most suffering will be experienced by the people who already are the poorest people in the world.

This Sunday’s reading from Proverbs reminds us that “the rich and poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” The poorest people on our planet are God’s children just as we are; their lives are more precious than our convenience. James, talking about the folly of dishonoring the poor, says that there is no good in our saying we care about others – in telling them to “Go in peace” – if we aren’t willing to make sure others are clothed and fed. The passage from Mark’s Gospel is a turning point in Jesus’ ministry, when Jesus recognizes the depth of the faith of a Syrophoenician woman, someone from a different culture who claims her place in God’s kingdom.

When our brothers and sisters who live in Arctic villages or on Pacific islands, in easily flooded places like Bangladesh, in Africa where famine and malaria will increase with global warming, are living increasingly marginalized lives as climate change accelerates, we Christians are called to take notice and do what we can to prevent their suffering. We are all on this planet together. Ultimately, all of humanity will suffer if climate change cannot be stopped. But in the next half century or so, it will be the poorest people who bear the brunt of the burden. Per capita, the United States has the largest carbon output of any nation; we are the rich people in this story. As Christians, we know how Christ would have us treat the poorer people who share our world.

We have much to gain for ourselves by turning to new energy technologies and capping our carbon output, and, just as importantly, we have much to gain for the poorest people with whom we share the Earth.