Saturday, April 23, 2011


The rest of the story...

This evening when the sun sets the waiting of Holy Saturday ends; sometime between sunset tonight and sunrise tomorrow morning most parishes celebrate the Great Vigil of Easter**. We kindle the new fire, hear the Exsultet bid “all the round earth” to rejoice because “darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King,” and then hear the good news: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Among the many gifts of the Holy Night proclaimed in the Exsultet is this one: “How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and [we are] reconciled to God.” That image of the realms of earth and heaven becoming one, and the linking of that unity to the restoration of a good and holy relationship between God and humankind get to the depths of the Easter message: in Christ, the chasm has been bridged. All of creation is infused with God’s Holy Spirit; the idea of a rigid separation between the spiritual and the physical is shown to be a false dichotomy. That’s why the created world, the world around us is filled with signs of God’s grace ready for the noticing.

Christ’s joining of earth and heaven reminds us of God’s declaration that creation is good. If God had no love for the earth, if the only things that had meaning for God and, by extension, for Christians were “spiritual” things, the damage we have done to the earth would be of practical concern only. Knowing that God loves all of creation and that the Easter story means that heaven and earth are joined gives us cause to rejoice, but also another level of sorrow for the degradation of our planet.

But our grief for what we have done to the earth isn’t the whole story, just as Holy Week wasn’t the whole story. Now we have the message of Easter. This message isn’t that things aren’t really that bad, or that everything is fine now and we needn’t worry about the needs of the world. The message is that God is present with us both in our sorrow and in our joy, and in the end, joy triumphs.

What does it look like for joy to triumph for people living on the earth today? We don’t know, but we do know how faith in the Easter message informs our lives here and now. The message is that even as we work for the future of life as we know it on this planet, we look for joy and allow ourselves to experience joy. The message is that hope is truer than despair.

As we remembered on Maundy Thursday, even in the midst of the events of Holy Week, Jesus gave thanks at the meal; the practice of gratitude, of finding reasons to rejoice, can keep us focused on the whole story. The spring flowers and nesting birds and greening trees give us joy, and it’s good to rejoice in these things. Getting outdoors when the weather warms and planting a garden give us joy, and serves as a sign of hope and faith in the future. Getting away from the lights in town and looking at a clear night sky can give us joy and wonder.

The Exsultet ends with an entreaty for God to accept the offering of the Paschal candle: “May it shine continually to drive away all darkness.” The light of Christ drives away the darkness of despair.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain, thy touch can call us back to life again; fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been: Love is come again like wheat that springeth green. (The words of John Macleod Campbell Crum, Hymn 204)

Easter joy to you!


**The words and rubrics for The Great Vigil of Easter are available here at The (Online) Book of Common Prayer.

Friday, April 22, 2011


Good Friday / Earth Day

For Christians walking through Holy Week, Good Friday is a day that stirs deep emotions. There is an emptiness in churches where the altars have been stripped. Our Good Friday liturgy begins in silence. We read John’s account of Jesus’ last hours (John 18:1 – 19:37), from the betrayal and arrest of Jesus through his death on the cross and the piercing of his side. The remembrance of Jesus’ pain – physical, emotional, and spiritual -- calls up deep sorrow and grief from us.

This year, Good Friday falls on the same date as Earth Day. Grief for the ways we have harmed the earth provides a common element between the two observances. Just as we go through our Good Friday grief and come out on the other side with Easter joy, the grief we experience when we witness environmental degradation and contemplate the future can show us some direction to find our way out to a place of meaning and Christian hope.

The average amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for March 2011 measured at the Mauna Loa observatory was 392.40 ppm; 350 ppm is generally considered to be the upper limit of the amount of CO2 that is safe for human beings and the other living things that sustain human life. (The last March reading below 350 ppm was in 1987. I recommend a look at the graph on the CO2 Now website) Rising CO2 levels result in ocean warming and acidification which are damaging shellfish and corals, and of course in rising world temperatures which melt ice, make oceans rise, and do much more. As the atmosphere warms, severe weather events become more frequent. Yesterday morning, The Weather Channel posted an update of severe weather in the United States in April. With the month not yet over, TWC says we have set a “tentative” record for the number of tornadoes in April. They also report this:

There have been over 5200 severe weather reports (tornadoes, hail, and high winds/wind damage) so far in April. On average, only about 3300 severe weather reports are tallied in an entire April nationwide.

There is grief in many communities where people have lost loved ones, homes, and businesses to tornadoes and other severe weather this spring.

The environmental damage linked to carbon emissions is only part of the damage that causes us grief this Earth Day. Japan has an ongoing nuclear crisis. Species extinction continues at an accelerated rate. Plastic pollution is everywhere. In a Huffington Post piece called Crucified Creation and the Hope of Eco-nomics Doug Demeo, a friend and GreenFaith Fellow, says that when he looks around the earth today “the weight of creation crucified seems too much to bear”. Doug talks about mountain top removal and hydro-fracking among other “environmental woes”.

Our Good Friday liturgy does something in the midst of our grief. After the story of Jesus’ final hours has been read, and perhaps a homily preached or a hymn sung that provides more reflection on the reading, we pray the Solemn Collects. Rather than staying stuck under the dead weight of grief, we open our hearts to the concerns of the Church and the world. With our hearts already broken open, these tend to be profound prayers.

It can be difficult to know where to begin doing something with our grief for the earth. With no significant national or international effort to address climate change or prevent future oil spills or stop covering the planet with plastic, we know our efforts are valiant but probably not enough. Yet just as our hearts are touched by Good Friday, our hearts are broken open by this grief, too. Prayers for the earth and her people are a good place to begin. We might pray for the Church and all people, praying that we continue to find meaning and hope in our lives even as the chances of sustaining life as we have known it on our planet get increasingly smaller. We might pray for open eyes, ears, minds, and hearts, for the ability to understand what we are facing and the will to do something about it.

The third of the Solemn Collects asks for the cry of those in misery and need to come to God; it also prays for God to “give us…the strength to serve them for the sake of him who suffered for us.” Gathering our strength and doing whatever we can to prevent and alleviate the human misery that results from environmental degradation is the only choice we have as followers of Christ. Environmentalist Bill McKibben said it in a different way in his speech at the Power Shift gathering in Washington, D.C. last weekend: “The only thing that a morally awake person can do when the worst thing that’s ever happened is happening is try to change those odds.

When we choose to acknowledge the problems we face and to work to address them with so little evidence that we can succeed is when we draw on our faith and our hope; when we make that choice, we get out from under our grief and, drawing on our faith for strength, gather energy for the work ahead.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

One Year After

It’s been a year since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Over this year, reports about the severity of the resulting oil spill and its effects have varied widely, and there remain conflicting reports about the long-term effects of this disaster. What do we know? What have we learned?

One thing on which the majority of people looking at its effects can agree is that we don’t know enough at this point to know what to expect in the future for the gulf and its coastal communities.

Immediately after the explosion last year, this blog had two posts that talked about it. One of them, The Day After, was written on April 23, the day after Earth Day. It talked about the discouragement of having something like this happen around the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day, especially given that an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969 is said to have inspired Sen. Gaylord Nelson’s proposal to have such a day. But then the post added this: “The good news the day after Earth Day is that there doesn’t seem to be a major oil spill, though there is an oil slick that at last report…measured ten miles by ten miles.” The days immediately after the explosion were like that – conflicting information, an effort to minimize worries about the disaster, and a public eager to believe the more positive reports.

On April 24 I posted Two Days After. The main point of the piece was that environmental problems were most probably not going to be solved by either the political establishment or industry. The Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate bill had been put on hold. As for the oil rig explosion, there was this:

The Coast Guard discovered today that, contrary to earlier reports, the well that fed the oil rig that exploded and burned last week, collapsing into the Gulf of Mexico on Earth Day, is leaking oil. This evening’s story from the AP about the situation reports that the oil slick has grown to a twenty by twenty mile square.

Things suddenly looked very different! As information continued to change over weeks and months, it was often hard to tell the size and scope of the disaster.

An Associated Press article from this week, Scientists: Gulf health nearly at pre-spill level, surveys some of the scientific opinions about where we stand a year later. While there is some disagreement, the overall consensus is that the health of the Gulf waters is close to where it was before the oil spill. That rating is not particularly high. The article explains:

If that pre-spill grade isn't impressive, it's because the Gulf has long been an environmental victim_ oil from drilling and natural seepage, overfishing, hurricanes and a huge oxygen-depleted dead zone caused by absorbing 40 percent of America's farm and urban runoff from the Mississippi River.

A close reading of the article reveals that while this standard sort of overall rating is back to where it was, many of the scientists expressed concerns in interviews about what we might see down the road that either hasn’t shown up yet or isn’t the sort of thing taken into account in grading the overall health of the gulf. There is simply a lack of data in some areas. Of particular concern are observations of effects on certain animals: dolphins, sea turtles, crabs. Effects on cetaceans (dolphins and whales), for example, can be found here where the NOAA Fisheries unit posts information about the “cetacean unusual mortality event” in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

What do we know? We know that environmental disasters affect all living things, including human beings. We know that ecosystems are complex and there are things we simply don’t know, such as the long-term effects of the dispersants that were used. It’s very difficult to predict the effects of this sort of disaster.

What have we learned? Apart from what scientists and the oil industry might have learned, those of us who aren’t directly involved in it have observed a couple of things. One is that collectively we have short attention spans. Once the aerial shots of the huge oil slick and the close-ups of pelicans covered in oil were gone, we moved on to other things. Little has been done to prevent another such disaster from happening partly because there is not a strong and sustained outcry from the public for policies to change. Things look pretty normal now, and we move on.

Related to this is something else we have learned yet again: we see things as isolated that are really connected. The concerns about the proposed oil pipeline through Nebraska are connected to the Gulf oil disaster; in both cases, local ecosystems are put at risk because of our addiction to oil. The situation in the Gulf is connected to the way we devalue poor people, people of color, and nonhuman creatures. It has to do with an inability to see the connection between our own consumer habits and the suffering of other people. It’s connected very much to the Gospel, to the command to love our neighbors, and to the teaching that the way we treat the most powerless people is the way we treat Christ (Matthew 25).

An assessment not of the science but of some of these other concerns comes from Patty Whitney, a Louisiana coastal communities advocate. Her piece, For Gulf Coast Residents, the Oil Spill Nightmare Continues appeared in Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics blog yesterday. She describes the ongoing social and economic effects of the oil spill on Gulf Coast communities, ending her post with these words:

The cameras and attention needed to bring light upon the injustices that continue are darkened and silent. The plight of the voiceless has been minimized and shrugged off in the name of scoring points for one political party or another in a unique game of one-upmanship. The fact that God’s creations are priceless makes them value-less in our society, which only measures value by the dollar.

So, where are we one year later? Still suffering the impacts of human-made and natural disasters. Still fearing that the other shoe is yet to drop. Still fighting for justice. Still tired. Still aware that God is the Master and the final judge, and that God doesn’t value things by the dollar. We’re counting on that.

(Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)

Monday, April 18, 2011

What Earth Week can learn from Holy Week

...(and conversely)
“Be truthful and ge
t to work.” (David Orr)

Our Holy Week has begun. From the Hosannas of the Palm Sunday liturgy through the remembrance of Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday, we recall the crucifixion and the events leading up to it. As much as we are able from a distance of some two thousand years, we will look at these things, difficult though it may be to see them and think about them, because the events of Holy Week are a necessary part of the truth of the Easter story.

The point of all of this isn’t to wallow in guilt and suffering, but to deepen and widen our joy at Easter; the point is always the wonder of the Easter message. While we can have a happy Easter morning without observing Holy Week, we appreciate the wonder of the resurrection much more after we have looked at the reality of Christ’s death on the cross. Some folks seem to get stuck in Holy Week and miss the point of it all; others, believers in some variation of positive thinking, avoid Holy Week with its disturbing images of Jesus’ humiliation, its reminders of varying degrees of betrayal by the disciples, and its description of the crucifixion itself. But if we leave out either Holy Week or Easter, we miss the truth of the whole story.

Because Earth Day is April 22, Earth Week and Holy Week coincide this year. Earth Day and Earth Week are meant to focus our attention on our care of the environment, but ways to do that vary widely. Many Earth Week events will simply celebrate being outdoors in the springtime – a fine enough thing in and of itself – without talking about the realities of climate change and pollution and their very real impacts on our lives.

One thing people celebrating Earth Week could learn from the Church is the importance of allowing ourselves to look at and talk about things that are difficult to ponder. Often when I talk about climate change or plastic pollution and share my concerns with people, they know that what I am saying is true, but they tell me that they can’t let themselves “think about that”. This sort of reaction has caused some environmentalists to quit talking about those realities and focus instead on clean energy or green jobs as ends-in-themselves.

David Orr, author of several books including Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse, recently shared the preface to the coming paperback edition of Down to the Wire with the Climate Progress blog. (See David Orr on confronting climate collapse)

David Orr says “Because the issue is unlike any we have ever faced before, it would be difficult enough to handle without deliberate distortion and outright lies. The consequences are global and, beyond some threshold, they will be irreversible and catastrophic.… Yet we continue to talk about climate destabilization as if it were an ordinary issue requiring no great vision, no unshakable resolve, no fear of the abyss.”

He continues:

"Instead, many continue to believe that our failure to respond adequately is the result of our failure to present a positive image. We have, they assert, marinated too long in “doom and gloom.” Their advice, instead, is to be cheery, upbeat, and talk of happy things like green jobs and more economic growth, but whisper not a word about the prospects ahead or the suffering and death already happening. Perhaps that is a good strategy and there is room for honest disagreement. But “happy talk” was not the approach taken by Lincoln confronting slavery, or by Franklin Roosevelt facing the grim realities after Pearl Harbor. Nor was it Winston Churchill’s message to the British people at the height of the London blitz. Instead, in these and similar cases transformative leaders told the truth honestly, with conviction and eloquence."

The point, he goes on to say, “is not to be gloomy or cheery, but to be truthful and get to work.”

In our Holy Week liturgies, we show how to look at the whole truth without getting mired down in “doom and gloom”. Being truthful about why humankind needs the hope of the resurrection in the first place is one piece of what we do; and that truth is incomplete unless we look beyond it to the promise of Easter. As St. Paul knew, there’s no hope without a need for hope. Earth Week could learn from Holy Week the necessity of telling the whole story, the whole truth, both the difficult truths we would rather avoid and the hope we can find beyond that.

Conversely, the Church might consider the words “be truthful and get to work”. If we hear the whole story this week without then going out to serve in Christ’s name, if we celebrate the resurrection of the body without then getting to work as the Body of Christ in the world, we will have avoided once again the truth of the Gospel message. If we truly celebrate Easter, we will have the strength and hope to look at all the difficult things in the world and to bring Christ’s healing love to a world in very great need.