Saturday, July 2, 2011


“Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you…” [Prayer of Self-Dedication, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 832]

A couple of things that have happened this week have me thinking about imagination. It’s good that we pray for full imaginations; well-developed imaginations are helpful to people who want to care for the earth.

A penguin story

Last week an emperor penguin appeared on a beach in New Zealand. The last time an emperor penguin was spotted in New Zealand was 1967, so this is a rare occurrence. At first the penguin was left alone, giving it an opportunity to swim back out to sea. But it became apparent that the penguin wasn’t going anywhere and soon didn’t appear to be well. People were concerned; as the title of an Earthweek article about the penguin puts it: Wayward Penguin Captures New Zealand Hearts. The bird was given the name Happy Feet and taken to the Wellington Zoo for veterinary treatment. When penguins get warm or dehydrated, they eat ice and snow. Finding itself on a sandy beach rather than a frozen beach, the penguin had eaten sand and driftwood. According to the New Zealand Herald, Happy Feet’s stomach was pumped again today.

Most people are compassionate when they know of an individual – a human being or another sort of animal – in need. With x-rays, air conditioning, and medical procedures, Happy Feet’s stay at the zoo isn’t cheap, but people are willing to help out in this sort of case. A Google search of “happy feet penguin” resulted in a row of images of the cute cartoon film penguin by the same name followed by three results for the film. Then comes a link to “Happy Feet’s stomach to be pumped again”. A particular individual case of an animal in need, something concrete, helps people to care; it also helps when the animal in need is associated with a cute cartoon creature!

It takes more imagination to care about the emperor penguins we don’t see, the ones that aren’t named or experienced as individuals or identified with a cute fictional character. A press release from ECO (the Environment and Conservation Organisations of NZ) points out that emperor penguins are “at grave risk of extinction from climate change by the end of the century”. Not only do emperor penguins need ice, but they breed only in the Antarctic winter and they feed on krill, which is itself impacted negatively by climate change. To feel the same level of compassion for these unseen birds as people do for Happy Feet, we need to be able not only to understand the facts about warming temperatures, melting ice, and dying animals, but also to be able to picture this future scenario in our imaginations.

In all aspects of environmental stewardship, it takes imagination to step from the science to compassion and the will to act. It also takes imagination to figure out the best ways to address climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. Climate change on the scale we are experiencing it is an entirely new problem; its solution may very well involve the breaking of some paradigms. Certainly we have seen that treating climate change like any other social issue doesn’t work; we don’t have the luxury of time. The laws of physics and chemistry don’t allow for gradual social change or political compromise.

Maps and Charts

Gardeners are familiar with maps of hardiness zones that help us figure out what varieties of plants can thrive where we live. These hardiness zones are changing, as some Nebraskans may have guessed from our own gardening experience. To help us imagine this on a national scale, an animated map of the changes in hardiness zones is helpful. Seen in this form, the changes from 1990 to 2006 are obvious.

The State of the Climate report for 2010 from the American Meteorological Association has been published. (See a summary here . NOAA summarizes some highlights of the report on this webpage.) The summary report of long-term trends – rising greenhouse gas emissions, rising global surface temperatures, and a sharply shrinking Greenland ice mass – includes helpful graphs of these climate indicators, making it easy to picture these trends on one level. But here again, it takes some imagination to begin to grasp the reality of these trends well enough to cause us to see the necessity for action.

The limits of our imaginations

Our limited imaginations can keep us from understanding our situation and from seeing how to best address the challenges we face. May God fill our imaginations so that we can be better stewards of the earth!

But realizing the limits of our imaginations can also be a blessing, because we know that no matter how good we get at imagining the possibilities for the future of our planet, we can never fully understand the bigger picture. In The Book of Common Prayer, one of our options for concluding Morning Prayer begins “Glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine…” Remembering that God can do more than we can ask or imagine gives us hope. When we can’t imagine how we will live into our future, our prayers of self-dedication, of asking God to equip us with the hearts, minds, imaginations, and wills to do God’s work, may be answered in ways we cannot ask or imagine. The Prayer of Self-Dedication asks for God to equip us so that we can be wholly God’s and so that God might then use us to God’s glory “and to the welfare of your people”.

We very much need the gift of imagination at this time; we are also blessed to know the limits of our imaginations.