Friday, December 31, 2010

Christmas Hope for the New Year

While it’s the end of 2010, in the church calendar we are in the middle of Christmas.  That means that when we look back at this year that is coming to an end, we in the church are looking back through the eyes of people who are celebrating the Incarnation. We stand in a place of comfort, joy, and hope, a place that celebrates the coming into the world of the true light that the darkness cannot overcome.

Looking back over this blog for the past year, there was a combination of information about what was happening to our environment along with posts that celebrated the ways we find God through the wonder of God’s creation and posts that talked about hope. Sometimes specific human actions, such as the 10/10/10 work day (see 10/10/10 and Gratitude and Grace),were signs of hope for us in the past year, and other times the hope was of a more subtle but more profound nature.

In July, there was a post called Hope talking about the feelings of peace and joy in God’s creation on a summer's morning and the hope those brought with them contrasted with the feelings of helplessness and discouragement brought on by the knowledge of our failure to care for creation and the despair those brought with them. Looking back at what has happened to our planet this past year from the perspective of Christmas brings up the same sort of contrast. The seeming disparity between our Christmas celebration and this information** is brought home in this video called Peace on Earth:

Where is hope and joy in this? The temptation to despair when faced with such information during Christmas must be similar to what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was facing when he wrote I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.  Longfellow’s response was to keep listening and hear that God is alive and “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail”; the response was to remember that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

This response doesn’t mean that we ignore the facts and indulge in fantasies that somehow the harmful effects of pollution, overuse of resources, and climate change will magically disappear. It does mean that we have the hope – and the promise -- of God being with us. The July post about hope ended with this:

Hope is not denial of reality. Hope is not pretending that our actions, the way we live our lives today, don’t have very sobering consequences. And hope is not thinking that God will suspend the laws of physics and chemistry and make those bad consequences miraculously disappear.

Hope is trust that God will be with us as we walk into the future we are creating. Hope is confidence that if we turn toward God, abandon our "arrogance and folly", and treat God’s creation with reverence, we have a future; hope says that no matter how difficult the future may be or how different from the present with its many comforts, our lives and our relationships with God, with one another, and with creation will still have meaning.

Gratitude can call us back to hope from despair. A beautiful summer’s morning in Nebraska can open our hearts to that gratitude that leads us to hope.

The beauty of the sun shining on the snow on New Year’s Eve in Nebraska and the wonder of Christmas can also open our hearts to gratitude that leads us to hope. 

Maybe 2011 will be the year that the world’s leaders begin to really understand what is happening on this planet and begin significant actions to ensure an environment in the future that can sustain human civilization. Or maybe the world’s leaders will continue to postpone and avoid the politically difficult decisions that action requires, and instead there will be enough grassroots understanding and effort – including the efforts of the church -- to make real progress. And maybe we will continue much as we have, with many people working very hard for the environment, but not enough to make a significant difference for our future. Whatever 2011 brings, God will be with us as walk through it.

**An update on the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (with the scientific consensus being that 350 ppm is the upper limit for a safe atmosphere for humans): at the end of November it was 388.59. The latest data from the Mauna Loa observatory can be found at CO2 Now.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

It’s Christmastime! We celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation with lots of appropriately embodied – incarnate – expressions of our joy: special foods, gathering with family and friends, the exchange of gifts, greenery and other decorations for our homes and churches. The sounds of Christmas music add to all of this.

The song “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” has become part of the Christmas repertoire, but I’ve been listening to it off and on since August, when this song I barely knew came into my head after I spent some time in the apple orchard at the St. Benedict Center. I wrote about that experience in a post called Apples and Manna . The sense of connection with God and of spiritual nourishment from that experience must be something like the mystical experience the original author of this song describes. While the song is often sung at a faster tempo, the words are very clear in this clip:

The Christmas Gospel from John (John 1:1-14) begins with a very abstract concept: “In the beginning was the Word…”, but ends with the Word becoming flesh, becoming incarnate, and coming to dwell among us. The unseen and ethereal God becomes visible and tangible.

The birth of Christ was the Incarnation, but opportunities for little experiences of the incarnation surround us. The wonders of God’s creation – the plants and animals, the rivers and hills, and the skies and land themselves – are constant signs of Emmanuel, God-with-us. 

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Deeper Traditions

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25)  tells the extraordinary story not only of Mary’s pregnancy and the birth of Jesus, but of Joseph’s reaction to the news. Mary's becoming pregnant while she was engaged to Joseph was not what he had expected. His righteous response, shielding Mary from public disgrace, was evidently enough out of the ordinary to warrant comment from Matthew. Then the most unexpected piece of Joseph’s story is revealed: in a dream, an angel speaks to him, and when he wakes up, Joseph does as the angel commanded him. Nothing in the story is what we would expect; nothing is customary.

The nativity story is Good News; it’s a story of something new and different, a story of new life coming into the world on a very deep level.

Despite our celebration of the birth of Jesus, we tend to cling to traditions, especially Christmas traditions. Every year, self-help writers encourage people to let go of customs or traditions that have become burdensome in some ways – a big holiday dinner or party, for example, that has become more work and expense than the hosts can bear -- and try something new that is more life-giving.

Thinking about our environmental footprint at Christmas involves thinking about our traditions. Choices about which gifts to buy, how (or whether) to wrap them, travel plans, food, and decorations all involve examining customs or traditions and considering changing them because we want something that matters more to us: a sustainable future, life itself.

The environmental challenges we face year-round call for us to examine our daily customs and traditions, our entire way of life, and find other ways to live that make new life possible. They call for us to let go of things that have become burdensome to all living things and try something new that is more life-giving. They call us to move from traditions on the level of familiar customs to traditions on the level of our most essential values.

A Climate Vulnerability Monitor report released earlier this month by DARA (Development Assistance Research Associates) analyzes the effects on various nations and peoples as the earth’s climate changes. (The summary of findings and recommendation from this report, found here, is very readable and provides a wealth of information.) One of the intents of the report is to lay out what’s at stake as we make decisions for the future. It provides the facts so we can make decisions about how to live. Standing on their own, the facts are grim, but the document also provides reason for hope, laying out how we might alleviate some of the suffering caused by climate change. Relatively simple things can address what the report says are now the primary causes of deaths related to climate change: malnutrition, diarrheal infections, and malaria.

During Advent, the lectionary reminds us of the prophetic message of justice for God’s people and restoration of the land. As the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change met in Cancun during Advent, there was some progress made, including establishment of a Green Fund  to help developing countries deal with the effects of climate change, and agreement on the frameworks for taking on the big question of how to reduce world-wide emissions of greenhouse gases. The lack of progress at Copenhagen a year ago coupled with the low expectations for the Cancun meeting led many to assess the meeting as a success.

Doing something is preferable to doing nothing, and making progress is something to celebrate, but it isn’t necessarily justice, especially not justice as described by the prophets. What counts as a success in the political world, or what we might see as a success because it gives some small glimmer of hope in the darkness, isn’t success by the standards of the prophets.

Perhaps no convention or treaty or political action can accomplish what the prophets call us to do: change our behavior so deeply that the earth, worn down like the poor by our greed and selfishness, can be renewed and restored.  These sorts of deep changes have an essential spiritual component that only our most profound traditions provide. These sorts of deep changes are embedded in the story of the birth of Jesus, the story we prepare to celebrate this week. If we stop and listen to Matthew’s account of the birth, letting the story really sink in, we may find our hearts prepared to embrace those deep changes with gladness. We may find Good News, a story of new life coming into the world on a very deep level.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Prophetic Voices: Dominican Republic

Today’s Episcopal News Service report from the Episcopal Climate Justice Gathering in the Dominican Republic focuses on the effects of climate change on the host country itself. The Diocese of the Dominican Republic  is one of our companion dioceses, which brings all of this closer to home for Nebraska Episcopalians.

Silvio Minier, who works for Oxfam in Santo Domingo, presented an overview of the local effects of climate change to the conference. The core of the justice concerns are evident in this paragraph of the ENS report:

"The Dominican Republic is the eighth country in the world that will be most affected by climate change," Minier said, adding that governments are not doing anything, and that the local environmental council has studied climate change's effects on the coast and tourism, but not on poor people and agriculture.

Lynette Wilson’s story for the Episcopal News Service, “Deforestation, intensive storms and floods show effects of climate change in Dominican Republic” can help us understand some of the challenges faced by the Diocese of the Dominican Republic. One way we can support our friends there is to pray and advocate for strong climate legislation and action in our own country, and for meaningful progress on a climate treaty as negotiations continue this week in Cancun.

Prophetic Voices for Environmental Justice

Advent 3A

According to yesterday’s Episcopal News Service release  about the Episcopal Climate Justice Gathering in the Dominican Republic this week (see Climate Conferences and the Church), the participants in the gathering came to a consensus that “now is the time for the church to reclaim and fortify its prophetic voice.” 

The voices of the prophets are a constant voice in our lectionary readings during Advent. In this Sunday’s reading (Isaiah 35:1-10), Isaiah connects justice and healing for the people with renewal and healing of the land. While the desert blooms and springs of water appear where there was parched land, the lame “leap like deer” and the “ransomed of the Lord” return to Zion.

Renewal of the land and renewal of the people are linked throughout Isaiah and many of the prophets. Care for the environment is not an isolated concern for the church; it is linked both in our tradition and in very real ways in our world with justice and well-being for people.

The focus of this week’s gathering in the Dominican Republic is climate justice, looking at the intersection between poverty and climate change. This blog and many others have highlighted the ways in which climate change, while eventually having huge effects on everyone on this planet, generally impacts the poorest people in the world first and worst. Rising sea levels, disappearing glaciers that served as water sources, and changes in conditions for agriculture and fishing all affect people who live along the margins both physically and economically in our global economy, people who live in the vulnerable low-lying areas where rich people don’t build their houses, people whose livelihoods depend on subsistence farming or fishing.

Environmental justice is at the heart of creation care; it connects directly to the promises of our baptismal covenant and to Jesus’ command to love our neighbors. Humans don’t live in isolation from other living things; wherever humans have caused harm to the rest of creation, the effects of that harm will eventually be experienced by humans. And sometimes issues that seem to be local and separate from justice issues for poor or marginalized people have a fairly direct connection.

In Nebraska, there has been much concern about the long-term effects of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline on the fragile Sandhills ecosystem and the Ogallala aquifer. If the pipeline is built and if there is a break in the line, people in Nebraska will be affected, and that is a very important concern. But right now, native peoples in Canada are feeling the effects of the extraction of oil from the land. At a press conference today the results of a new research report documenting the impact of contaminants and reduced water flow on the Athabasca River will be discussed; the changes in the river impact the rights by treaty of native people along the river to hunt, fish, and trap.

In this Sunday’s Gospel lesson (Matthew 11:2-11) Jesus asks “What did you come out into the wilderness to look at?..A reed shaken by the wind?...Someone dressed in soft robes?”, then answers that they came to see a prophet “and more than a prophet”. The one coming is more than a prophet, but speaks with a prophet’s voice for all people. Those who choose to follow Jesus choose to stand in the tradition of the prophets. We should expect to hear the church's prophetic voice whenever and wherever there is damage to the earth and harm done to God’s children.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Waiting in Hope (With Feathers)

Advent 2

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13)

Our God is the God of hope, and in Advent we wait in hope. Advent teaches us that even when the days seem dark, hope is as essential a part of our spirituality as are worship, repentance, and service to others.

There are signs of hope here and there with regard to the environment. People seem more aware of and accepting of alternative forms of energy; wind farms, for example, are becoming more common in our part of the country. Midlanders generally seem to be more aware of the need to recycle what we can and to use energy and water as efficiently as possible. In the work of our diocese, there seems to be an increasing sense of stewardship about the distances we travel to do our work; we more often make intentional choices about when we need to meet in person and when we can meet by telephone or video call.
On the other hand, there are less hopeful signs – the increasing rate of climate change and our increasing understanding of how short a time we have left to act , the increasing amounts of plastic in the oceans and the marine food chain, and the failure of policymakers in America (where the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming has just been eliminated) and other countries to address these issues and other environmental issues.

This year in Advent in Cancun – as last year during Advent in Copenhagen – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is meeting. Expectations are not high for significant agreements to come out of this conference, but there is hope of progress in some areas. No doubt the liturgical calendar has nothing to do with the scheduling of these meetings, but it’s interesting that Advent has become a time when we look for signs of hope that the nations might come to address the urgent problem of climate change to a significant degree. The expectations are low, but Advent teaches us to hope.

My brother, an historian specializing in American history, reminds me that in 1850, few “reasonable” people thought slavery would end in their lifetime, and that many serious writers in the late 1950’s saw no possibility of ending racial segregation for dozens of years. In some ways, these important societal changes happened just when things seemed least hopeful.

People of faith were instrumental in the abolition movement and the civil rights movement. Hope and faith go together. I’m no historian, but I wonder if the hopeful nature of people of faith was what kept these movements going against all odds so that when the time suddenly was ripe, there were visible advocates for these causes.

I’ve noticed flocks of geese and robins this week; I suppose they are beginning their journeys a bit late after the warmth of November. Meanwhile, juncos and finches have begun coming to my feeders more frequently.  Remembering Emily Dickinson’s words – “Hope is the thing with feathers”    -- the birds are a visible reminder both of hope and of God’s beautiful and wondrous creatures whose survival, along with ours, is at stake.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Climate Conferences and the Church

The United Nations Climate Conference opened in Cancun on Monday of this week. It’s been nearly a year since the last round of climate talks in Copenhagen. This blog’s post  at the beginning of that conference talked about finding hope in the midst of despair about the very real possibility that not enough would be done about climate change soon enough to avert global catastrophe. With the disappointments of the Copenhagen talks and recent scientific reports – e.g. “World could heat up 4 degrees C in fifty years -- showing that climate change is proceeding more rapidly than predicted, the need for action has become even more urgent than it was a year ago.

Religious leaders in Scotland sent a letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron saying that the failure of western nations to help developing nations cope with climate change is a “moral outrage”  . The religious leaders have asked UK leaders to help ensure more successful talks this year in Cancun, saying that every day that passes without significant help sees lives "affected and even lost".  A World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation is in Cancun bearing the Christian message that humanity is called to care for creation and for the world’s most vulnerable people.

Frustration with the political failure in addressing climate change and its effects has led to increasing calls for grassroots action outside of the traditional political framework. In particular, some people are looking to the faith community to provide leadership as the moral dimensions of this crisis become clearer.  

An Episcopal News Service piece by The Rev. P. Joshua Griffin  tells about a gathering of Episcopalians and Anglicans to be held in San Pedro de Macoris in our companion Diocese of the Dominican Republic December 7-10. This gathering will address some of the moral questions around the intersection of poverty and climate change and begin discerning “how our church might model justice and global reconciliation given the harsh ecological realities facing our world.

And there’s the question for all of us: how do we as a church model – and communicate – justice and reconciliation for a world very much in need of leadership in addressing climate change and its effects? In a world made much more complicated by climate change, how do we live out our baptismal covenant to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being? 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent 1 Addendum

Friday’s post, “As in those days before the flood…” talked about links between today’s Gospel lesson (Matthew 24: 36-44)  and recent news about sea level rise. Today’s New York Times has an op-ed piece, “An Almanac of Extreme Weather, written by Jack Hedin, a farmer in southern Minnesota, that hits more immediately and closer to home for Nebraskans.

Mr. Hedin talks about the difficulties Midwestern farmers face as the weather becomes more severe; he especially talks about the recent changes in precipitation and increasing frequency of flooding. In the middle of the piece, he writes:

Minnesota’s state climatologist, Jim Zandlo, has concluded that no fewer than three “thousand-year rains” have occurred in the past seven years in our part of the state. And a University of Minnesota meteorologist, Mark Seeley, has found that summer storms in the region over the past two decades have been more intense and more geographically focused than at any time on record.

The weather in neighboring South Dakota was covered in another recent piece in the New York Times, “Storm Upon Storm for South Dakota from November 20.

Today’s piece about Minnesota talks about changes we can make in the Midwest to address climate change and try to preserve productive farmland for future generations. It’s a good fit with the First Sunday of Advent theme of being awake and prepared!

Friday, November 26, 2010

"As in those days before the flood..."

Advent 1A

Friday morning there was an interesting juxtaposition of news headlines with a small bit of the Gospel lesson for the First Sunday in Advent. The lesson is Matthew 24: 36-44. As Jesus talks about the need to be ready at all times for the return of the Son of Man, he compares the time when the Son of Man returns to the days of Noah: “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” 

While Noah built the ark and made the other preparations God told him to make, other people went about their business as if nothing unusual were about to happen. Jesus says they were oblivious to the situation until it was too late, until the flood had come and swept them away.

Friday morning’s New York Times had a front-page story about residents of Norfolk, Virginia, trying to deal with rising seas. Even as residents try to address the specific problems with rising water in their own neighborhoods, many of them also realize that their needs are only a small piece of much bigger problems as the world gets warmer and sea levels rise.

Other recent news stories reported similar concerns in a variety of location: southern Florida, Alexandria, Egypt and the Nile Delta , the Galveston Bay region,  and the Bahamas.  Nebraska’s lack of coastlines doesn’t insulate us from the effects of sea level rise, as the economic consequences and population shifts will be felt everywhere. And the climate changes that are causing the rise in sea levels will have other, more direct effects on Nebraska.

On some level, all of these stories indicate that there seems to be some increase in awareness of what we are facing. But on another, deeper, level, there seems to be as little awareness as Jesus says there was when Noah was building the ark. This week's "Black Friday" shopping glut seemed to contrast the headlines. We will know that we are really beginning to understand what is happening when we act like people who are awake and prepared, when we begin to make significant changes to mitigate climate change and consciously adapt to the changes that are unstoppable.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

For the beauty of the earth...

Happy Thanksgiving! Just around the time the Christmas shopping industry calls us to notice what we don’t have and to focus on things we really, really want, the national Thanksgiving holiday calls us to step away from our usual Thursday routines and focus on gratitude for what we already have.  The practice of gratitude is a basic spiritual practice; far from being the focus of one day each year, it’s an important part of daily spiritual discipline for many of us.

About half a century ago, before adults worried about whether children had what Richard Louv has termed nature-deficit disorder, my most constant experiences of gratitude came through nearly daily experiences of nature. Our church and Sunday school made little explicit connection between this and the things we talked about on Sundays; one of the few revelations of the connection was in the hymn “For the beauty of the earth” that happened to be one of our regular Sunday school songs. Here’s a lovely version of it:

Gratitude is basic to spiritual practice because it’s intertwined with love, hope, and faith. Thanking God for something brings us to an awareness of our love for God and for the things for which we are grateful; finding the gifts for which we are grateful helps us see bright spots of hope in any situation; and acknowledging the good things God has provided for us gives us faith in God’s goodness and love for us. Love, hope, and faith give us a good foundation for doing the work God calls us to do, including the essential and enormous work of restoring a sustainable environment on our planet.

It’s difficult to look at the harm we have done to the earth and at the big effort and change in priorities it will take for the course of things like climate change and plastic pollution of the oceans to be changed for the better. Giving ourselves time to notice and appreciate the wonders of God’s creation is a good antidote to the temptation of despair; gratitude is as essential a piece of this work as is the willingness to look at the problems we face.

Happy Thanksgiving! Many daily returns of the spirit of the day!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The King of All Creation

Archbishop William Temple was quoted in yesterday’s reflection in Forward Day by Day, a reflection from 1936 about the involvement of the church in what today we call social justice ministry:

The Christian’s duty in regard to slums is not merely to tell the inhabitants that their squalor is of small consequence because soon they will pass to the house of many mansions.

It’s easy to imagine that if Archbishop Temple were here today, he would tell us that our duty with regard to climate change isn’t merely to say that the effects of climate change on our planet won’t matter because our home is in heaven. 

In the great circle of the liturgical year, we come this Sunday to the Reign of Christ or Christ the King. The collect for Christ the King talks about all the peoples of the earth being brought together under Christ’s rule.  The kingdom is both the end of the story that we tell each liturgical year and the beginning, as the following Sunday we begin our preparations for the birth of the King in a stable.

Whatever other interpretations we might place on the Scriptural passages about the kingdom of God and the rule of Christ, it’s evident that when we truly believe that Christ is everything described in Colossians 1:11-20, we experience an inner transformation that re-orients us radically. In the words of this passage, such an encounter with the reality of Christ transfers us to Christ’s kingdom. This radical shift makes it possible for us to live into our identities as citizens of Christ’s kingdom even while we are living in Nebraska in 2010.

This passage from Colossians emphasizes that Christ is the king of all things, both on earth and in heaven. This Sunday we celebrate Christ as the “firstborn of all creation”; next Sunday we are preparing for the birth of Christ, for the Incarnation, where God’s love for creation brings God to be born as a human being, living as one of us on earth. 

Christ is not only the king of heaven, but also the king of all creation, both heaven and earth. How we treat one another and the environment that sustains life becomes doubly significant when we remember that the kingdom is both eternal and now, both infinite and right here. Paul tells us that Christ himself “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Honoring Christ and his kingdom as we do this Sunday entails honoring all of creation. Looking toward a time when all the peoples of the earth are brought together under Christ’s reign entails caring for our brothers and sisters in all parts of our world. We honor Christ as our King when we tend carefully to our connections through Christ to one another and to all of creation.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Catastrophe and Faith

Today’s Daily Office lessons include Habakkuk 3:1-18, which ends with these words:

17 Though the fig tree does not blossom,
   and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
   and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
   and there is no herd in the stalls, 
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
   I will exult in the God of my salvation.

The prophet Habakkuk describes a catastrophic scene, a complete crop failure coupled with a loss of livestock. This description of desolation ends, though, with a strong statement of faith: despite this utter calamity, I will celebrate in God.

November tree
I rejoiced to see this passage this morning, as I was thinking about a sobering piece that Joe Romm posted on Climate Progress yesterday. “A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice summarizes ten of the biggest stories in climate science in the past year. The picture that emerges from these summaries is a catastrophic one, with our only hope being a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions very soon. All of these stories will affect us in Nebraska in one way or another. Perhaps of most immediate concern to us in the Great Plains are these two: a prediction from the National Center for Atmospheric Research  of drought patterns fifty years in the future if emissions are not controlled, with our section of the country predicted to be experiencing a worse drought than we did in the 1930’s Dust Bowl days, and a prediction from the UK Meteorological office of average temperature increases between 13 to 18 degrees F. over most of the United States in the next fifty years if we keep on our current emissions path.

November daisies in Nebraska
It’s important to share this sort of information in this blog, but it’s also important to place it in a faith context that helps us figure out what to do with the information.  Christian hope in the face of news that could easily lead to despair has been the subject of several other Green Sprouts posts; a major contribution of religion to the discussion of environmental degradation is the ability to shine light into darkness, to bring hope where there is despair. And even when hope is hard to come by, there is still the hope that we can rejoice in God and as we rejoice to come to love God’s creation enough to save ourselves from total disaster.

A theme of Advent is the coming of the light into the darkness. As we move into Advent in the next couple of weeks, it’s a good time for Christians to take a deep and prayerful breath, look straight into the darkness climate scientists tell us we are entering, and bring some light into the darkness. Faith isn't denial of the darkness; faith is the ability to find God in the darkness.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Rich in Soul

Annual Council ended today, and from where I sat it looked like an energizing and renewing event for most of us in attendance. The focus on mission “From every family, language, people and nation” was centered on the establishment of a global companion relationship among our diocese and the Dioceses of the Dominican Republic and of Twic East in Southern Sudan.  The theme of mission showed up throughout our meeting, though.

At the Council Eucharist, the processional hymn was “God of grace and God of glory” (Hymn 594). The words “shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul” summarize a large part of the importance of connecting our spiritual lives with a concern for the environment. Habits of over-consumption that harm our planet also harm our souls. “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal” is a good prayer for us as we consider the church’s role in addressing the environmental challenges of our time.

Thank you to everyone who spoke with me about environmental stewardship during Annual Council! It was exciting to hear about what is happening in some of our parishes and to find others who are enthusiastic about taking care of the Earth. Because of the timing of the environmental stewardship presentation, some folks who were interested in certain resources weren’t able to pick them up at the display before leaving for home, so here are some links:

The brochure about eco-palms is available here from the Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management at the University of Minnesota.

Click here for information about the GreenFaith Certification Program for congregations. Click on this link to Episcopal Life Online for more information about grants available to Episcopal parishes who want to apply for the program. New Green Opportunity for Parishes was an earlier post on this blog about the program.

Someone asked for a list of the books on display; please send me a message if you want that list! I'm also happy to send the page of suggested first steps toward a greener parish to anyone who wants a copy.

And for those who liked the story about the treasures we discovered during our October 10 clean-up, the post about that, Grace, is here

"Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore...Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving thee whom we adore."

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Joy of Composting Redux

…and Double Digging, Too!

November petunia
“No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, November!” ends a poem by Thomas Hood. I remember reading this to my children on some gray November days that must have been much like the days that inspired Hood to write those words. That’s not an accurate description of our part of Nebraska this year, though, and especially not on a warm, sunny day like today. There is still fruit; today before pulling the mostly frozen tomato plants from my garden, I picked a handful of ripe cherry tomatoes. There are flowers, not only the unexceptional chrysanthemums and marigolds in sheltered places, but a few of the more tender annuals, like petunias, continue to bloom here and there. The trees have remarkably more leaves than usual in November, and birds are out and about.

My very small garden beds yielded a constant supply of tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers through October. Despite generally warmer than normal temperatures, though, a freeze last week nipped enough plants to make this a good day to clean up the vegetable patches. After pulling the plants, my husband and I dug compost into the soil. The space this freed up in the compost bin was soon filled with layers of dry leaves and the plants we had pulled. The remains of this summer’s tomatoes and peppers and leaves will renew the soil and nourish next summer’s garden.

A post last April about composting said:
Composting is a literally down-to-earth project, something that helps us connect to the Earth and to the basic functions and patterns of living things. The reminder of this connection several times a day as I set aside scraps and garden clippings for the compost pile ends up being a sort of prayer woven through the day, a sense of connectedness to God’s creation, a reminder of our role in caring for creation.  Through these things, it’s a reminder of humility in its true sense: who we are and whose we are.

Compost ready to use
Seven months later, those scraps and clippings and spent flowers have been transformed into a constant source of nourishment for other plants. If setting these things aside was a sort of prayer, the resulting compost is an allegory of how God receives our humble daily prayers and transforms them into something greater that becomes a constant source of nourishment for us and those for whom we pray.

This week brought more reports of record warm temperatures this year and of a pattern of new record highs outpacing record lows by a significant ratio. The preliminary data for October from the Mauna Loa observatory  shows 387.18 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (with 350 ppm being considered the upper safe limit).

A deep connection to the Earth, a love of creation, makes us grieve when we become aware of what is happening, but the joy in this same connection can serve as an antidote to despair. Both our spiritual practices, like prayer for humankind and our planet, and our practices of stewardship, like composting, give us a way of coping spiritually and emotionally with climate change while doing what we can to improve the situation.

Last month, while most of the garden was still producing fruit, I used a couple of empty rows of one bed to try double digging. This is an old garden practice that I had never tried, but which had intrigued me ever since I saw a Victory Garden podcast about it four years ago. (You can see it here.) It’s a great way of amending soil. I used regular compost instead of composted manure. Double digging involves turning the topsoil along with loosening the subsoil and adding compost down deep. For me, double digging was very satisfying. With several small, orderly steps, a fairly large area of soil gets altered in a way that makes it more productive for several years. Now that other areas of the garden are bare and the ground hasn’t frozen, I plan to do more of this.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Blessings, Woes, and Footprints

The All Saints Day Gospel reading this year is Luke 6:20-31, the Sermon on the Plain. In contrast to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount that names groups of people who are “blessed” (makarios -- happy or fortunate), Luke’s parallel passage names both categories of people who are blessed and categories of people who are not so blessed, the ones who hear Jesus saying “Woe to you”. The striking thing about Luke's passage, of course, is that the people we would normally consider to be afflicted with some sort of hardship end up being the ones Jesus labels as blessed, and the ones we would normally consider to have advantages in life are the ones Jesus labels as afflicted. Things are not always what they seem to be on the surface!

Yesterday’s Daily Office reading from Luke (Luke 12:13-21) was the parable about the rich man who planned to build bigger barns to hold all his stuff, but who neglected the important things so that he was “not rich toward God”. Jesus told this parable as a warning against greed. The man in the parable thought he had it all, but discovered instead that he had completely missed the most important things in life. Perhaps he was the sort of person Jesus had in mind when he said, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation”

Becoming more intentional about creation care can help us shift our focus away from the accumulation of more and more stuff and towards the sort of life that brings us true blessings.

When we learn about environmental degradation and its effect on the most vulnerable people (and other living things) on the planet, we bring ourselves to a place where we can open our hearts to selflessness instead of selfishness, to giving instead of greed. Learning to make the connection between our own accumulation of things and the effect of those things -- including their transportation and packaging, and their eventual disposal -- on the environment helps us to put the acquisition of more things in perspective.

Calculating an individual ecological footprint can help make us aware of the resources we use and where we might make changes to reduce our footprint. One of many footprint calculators can be found here from The Footprint Network.

Creation care keeps us in touch with the beauty and wonder that are ours for the noticing. Rediscovering the natural world can help us open our hearts as we respond in gratitude to God’s gift of creation. We find that the beauty of the sky, the plants, the waters, the animals, and the rocks and earth itself is more beautiful than anything money can buy. Experiencing the beauty and wonder of creation helps us strengthen our relationship with God, the Creator.

When the pursuit of riches, the accumulation of more stuff, is no longer a priority for us, we are blessed. When we rejoice in the beauty and wonder of creation, we discover that we are already makarios, already happy and fortunate, and that the happiness we’ve found is deeper and more lasting than our excitement over the acquisition of another shiny thing. Today’s Daily Office lesson (Luke 12: 32-48) teaches us to “make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no moth destroys and no thief comes near”. In what on the surface looks like a sort of spiritual paradox, when we are good stewards of what we have on earth, we end up letting go of our attachment to the things that don’t last. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Disappearing Homes

“Abandonment and Retreat”

Yesterday’s Washington Post told about the collapse of the last remaining house on a disappearing island in Chesapeake Bay.  The article explains that sea levels in Chesapeake Bay are rising more quickly than in most other coastal regions because the fairly recent phenomenon of overall rising oceans is combined there with an ancient geological phenomenon that is causing an overall sinking of the area. The two factors working together have produced some dramatic results on islands where villages were home to people in the 20th century.

Toward the end of the article is mention that the disappearance of this one house isn’t an isolated event; the entire Chesapeake Bay is expected to be affected by this. “And Maryland is contemplating how to, in one official's words, ‘facilitate abandonment and retreat’ when faster-rising waters eventually threaten towns on the Eastern Shore's mainland.

I came across this article after reading something with less immediate human interest but of great significance, pointing to the greatest melting in Greenland since records were first kept in the 19th century. Meltdown in Greenland: inland ice drips away at record speed is an article posted on, the official website of Denmark. “New calculations show that the amount of melted inland ice in Greenland is 25-50% higher in 2010 than normally,” says the report from a Danish research scientist, Sebastian Mernild, working at the Los Alamos lab. The accelerated melting in Greenland this summer is further evidence that Arctic melting is proceeding faster than expected. This is the same summer in which the notoriously big – four times the size of Manhattan -- piece of the Petermann glacier break off.

As oceans rise, huge numbers of people all around the world will be displaced. Homes have already disappeared some places. This article from Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald tells about the work of photographer Rodney Dekker who traveled to Bangladesh to show others the human cost of climate change. The article notes that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that the rising sea will cover 17% of Bangladesh by 2050, which would displace 20 million people. An unimaginable number of homes will disappear in that country alone! Given the acceleration in Arctic melting, the IPCC report is now generally considered to be conservative in its predictions.

For Nebraskans, this can all seem very far away. But if huge numbers of homes disappear in coastal areas, there will be huge numbers of climate refugees. Immigration reform is already a major political issue in Nebraska; when millions of people’s homes have disappeared, moving somewhere else will be their only option. Add to that people forced to move from our own nation’s low-lying coastal areas – think about the people fleeing New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, for example – and it’s easy to imagine that we will feel the effects even if we were to try to isolate ourselves from them. And as Christians, we are called away from selfish isolation to serve those in need. We are called to welcome the stranger, to love others whose homes have disappeared the way we would want to loved if we were the climate refugees.

We are good at helping our neighbors in Nebraska after a tornado or fire destroys a home. When Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. Our neighbors might be strangers, people on the road who need our help. When we see our global neighbors, Jesus calls us away from abandonment of their needs and retreat into isolation.

Given all of this, we are called to be good stewards, to promote a sustainable environment. It seems that another good role for the church now – as always – is truth telling. Jesus told the truth about the cross even though the disciples didn’t want to hear it, and he also told the truth about the resurrection. Thinking about the possibilities of climate change and what that means in terms of human needs takes most of us outside of our comfort zone; we would rather not hear it.

Along with rising sea levels are the unknown effects of climate change on agriculture, on food supply chains, on our economy as a whole. The security of our metaphorical home, that mental place where we assume a certain level of stability in the essentials of life in the middle of the United States, may also disappear. Finding our true home, our true security, in God – always a sound spiritual practice – will be more essential than ever. Flexibility and adaptability as people and as a church will be essential if we are to continue serving as the Body of Christ. Openness to the truth and to abandonment of our false securities points to the hope in all of this, that at home in Christ we will continue to find nourishment and meaning.

For more about climate refugees, see this recent National Catholic Reporter review of the book Climate Refugees.

The documentary Climate Refugees is described on the Sundance Festival website here.  This is a trailer of the film:

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

(Luke 18:9-14)

How intentional would we be about environmental stewardship if we considered the needs of others as much as we consider our own comparatively short-term self interest? This question came to me as I thought about yesterday’s reflection in Forward Day By Day.

The reflection was on the story of the Good Samaritan, but the author of the reflection (written in 1967 and republished as part of Forward’s 75th anniversary retrospective) brought in the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector to make a point. This latter parable (Luke 18:9-14) is the Gospel lesson for this Sunday. The author’s point in the comparison was this: in both parables, Jesus says that someone who was scrupulously observant of the Law is not acting rightly because he is either ignoring or despising others. The Pharisee in Sunday’s parable actually stands in the temple giving thanks to God that he isn’t like other people, those less pure people like the tax collector standing near him.

The author of this 1967 reflection wrote: “[W]hat wonders would take place if we demanded of our elected representatives that human need, rather than self-interest, be the only criterion in politics, in social welfare, and in international relations!”  We can ask the same question of ourselves as we look at pollution and climate change and consider – all too slowly – how and whether to make changes that would give us a chance at long-term sustainability.  

Coal train in Nebraska
Does it matter whether we switch to a greener economy because we become convinced that it’s in our own short-term best interest, that’s there’s money to be made in wind or solar energy; or because we look ahead and realize our current economy isn’t sustainable and so it’s in our long-term best interest to make some changes; or because we love the Creator, and so love the creation and the connection to God we experience through it; or because we hear the cries of God’s children in other places who are already suffering the effects of climate change and pollution?  Does it matter whether we do it for our own self-interest or out of love? Secular environmentalists and some religious environmentalists think that the reason doesn’t matter; what matters is that we make the change before it’s too late. That’s tempting, but Jesus taught that what’s in our hearts matters.

Knowing the benefits to ourselves of being greener helps make the changes easier, but if self-interest is our only reason for action, it’s not what Christ asks of his followers. Moreover, at any point where the going gets tough, I might decide that my self-interest lies elsewhere and decide to go back to the old ways.

But maybe the distinction between selfishness and love collapses with the last sentence of this Sunday’s lesson: “[A]ll who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” From Christ’s perspective, choosing to put ourselves first is always a short-term choice. Healthy love for ourselves is intertwined with love for God and love our neighbor. Self-love that is divorced from love for others eventually shows itself to be something else, something other than love.

Take time to smell the mums!