Monday, December 31, 2012

Joy: Seventh Day of Christmas

Joy to the world! The Lord is come: let earth receive her king;
Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.

With “Joy to the world” in our hearts and minds, I invite you to join me in looking each of these twelve days for instances of the joy that runs through all of creation, especially through experiencing the beauty and wonder of God’s world.

While parts of Nebraska had new snowfall today, in Omaha where we spent the day it was simply cloudy and cold. It was one of those “in the bleak midwinter” sorts of days: “Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone”.

But walking by snow-covered flower beds that I know are planted with spring flower bulbs brought joy into the day, the joy of anticipation. Just as we look with confidence for the light to appear in the darkness, we know that new growth will start appearing in a few weeks. Meanwhile, there are garden seeds to order and start indoors and memories of last year’s gardens to shorten the remaining weeks of winter.

Joy to the world! The Savior reigns; let us our songs employ, while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, repeat the sounding joy.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Joy: Sixth Day of Christmas

Joy to the world! The Lord is come: let earth receive her king;
Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.

With “Joy to the world” in our hearts and minds, I invite you to join me in looking each of these twelve days for instances of the joy that runs through all of creation, especially through experiencing the beauty and wonder of God’s world.

Today we drove through part of eastern Nebraska and into Omaha. The land changed along the way from fairly flat fields to hills, and then on through the Platte and Elkhorn river valleys with some wooded areas near the rivers, and then into the suburbs and center of Omaha. Snow covered it all.

From the road, the rows of corn stubble stand out against the snow. The clearly distinguishable rows recede into a common point, bringing some geometrical elegance to the landscape. Coupled with seeing the fields lying under snow cover, providing at least some moisture to the dry soil, the fields bring quiet joy.

Driving by wooded areas brings a different sort of joy to me. Since my childhood in northeast Ohio, I’ve loved seeing the woods in winter, so even small patches of woods seen from the road evoke a special feeling of joy and gratitude for the earth’s gifts.

A key to experiencing joy is openness to finding joy both in beloved familiar places and in places that seem very different or even strange. Straight rows of corn stubble and the tangled thickets in the woods are very different, but there’s joy to be seen and experienced in both. Learning to let go of something old in order to find joy in something new is essential to our spiritual growth, and may well be a piece of our spiritual preparation for the challenges we face now and in the future as our biosphere changes in significant ways.

Joy to the world! The Savior reigns; let us our songs employ, while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, repeat the sounding joy.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Joy: Fifth Day of Christmas

Joy to the world! The Lord is come: let earth receive her king;
Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.

With “Joy to the world” in our hearts and minds, I invite you to join me in looking each of these twelve days for instances of the joy that runs through all of creation, especially through experiencing the beauty and wonder of God’s world.

 Bright blue skies, sunshine, and sparkling white snow brought joy to people in central Nebraska today. The snow on parts of this frozen lake was still immaculate, unbroken by footprints or thawing.

See, amid the winter's snow,
Born for us on Earth below,
See, the tender Lamb appears,
Promised from eternal years.

Hail, thou ever blessed morn,
Hail redemption's happy dawn,
Sing through all Jerusalem:
Christ is born in Bethlehem!

Joy to the world! The Savior reigns; let us our songs employ, while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, repeat the sounding joy.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Joy: Fourth Day of Christmas

Joy to the world! The Lord is come: let earth receive her king;
Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.

With “Joy to the world” in our hearts and minds, I invite you to join me in looking each of these twelve days for instances of the joy that runs through all of creation, especially through experiencing the beauty and wonder of God’s world.

January robins are always a treat. A whole flock of them appeared near our house this morning. The temperature was 10°, the wind chill was -5°, and there was a covering of fresh snow that had fallen during the night.  And suddenly there were robins singing (and a bluejay squawking), just like they do on warm mornings in springtime.

Joy to the world! The Savior reigns; let us our songs employ, while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, repeat the sounding joy.

Holy Innocents

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  Collect for Holy Innocents, Book of Common Prayer, p. 238

Pollution and the effects of climate change impact children especially hard. Pollutants generally do more damage to developing bodies; dehydration from diarrheal diseases caused by lack of clean water is especially dangerous for infants and young children. According to World Health Organization information about climate change and health, “children – in particular, children living in poor countries – are among the most vulnerable to the resulting health risks” from climate change”. Among these risks are extreme heat, malnutrition, lack of clean water, impacts of natural disasters, and increasing risk of diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, and diarrheal diseases.

Today the church remembers the Holy Innocents, the children who died when Herod ordered the slaughter of all children who were two years old or younger (Matthew 2: 13-23). Augustine of Hippo called these children “buds, killed by the frost of persecution the moment they showed themselves.”

As air and water pollution and climate change take their toll of young lives, many children in our world never get a chance to be more than buds, buds killed in this case by the frost of the world’s indifference the moment they showed themselves.

The people with power in this world – the political leaders, the economically comfortable, the corporate heads – differ from Herod, of course. Their intention isn’t to cause the death of thousands of children; their intention instead is to maintain political power by not addressing a difficult problem, or to ignore the effects of climate change so that we can continue enjoying the sorts of comforts and conveniences to which we are accustomed, or to make a profit producing, selling, or investing in fossil fuels. Children are the collateral damage of our failure to control pollution and address climate change. There is no intention to harm, but instead of an intention to protect children, there is indifference and denial.

When we look the other way and refuse to acknowledge what is happening as a result of our failure to control pollution and address climate change, we aren’t really all that different from Herod. And the grief of the mothers of today’s innocent victims is no different from the grief of the mothers of Bethlehem some two thousand years ago.

Here is the Coventry Carol in honor of the innocents who died in Typhoon Sendong in the Philippines in 2011.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Joy: Third Day of Christmas

Joy to the world! The Lord is come: let earth receive her king;
Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.

With “Joy to the world” in our hearts and minds, I invite you to join me in looking each of these twelve days for instances of the joy that runs through all of creation, especially through experiencing the beauty and wonder of God’s world.

“I know every bird in the sky, and the creatures of the fields are in my sight.” (Psalm 50:11)

Several cardinals have brought color to our neighborhood the past few days. This morning while fresh snow was falling they were especially lovely.

Joy to the world! The Savior reigns; let us our songs employ, while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, repeat the sounding joy.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Joy: Second Day of Christmas

Joy to the world! The Lord is come: let earth receive her king;
Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.

With “Joy to the world” in our hearts and minds, I invite you to join me in looking each of these twelve days for instances of the joy that runs through all of creation, especially through experiencing the beauty and wonder of God’s world.

Holly is traditional for Christmas decorating, something we absorbed from older winter solstice traditions. The holly’s glossy green leaves are a welcome sight in the winter. Besides bringing some color to the winter landscape, the green holly reminds us of the coming spring, when places that are now white or brown will again be green.

When the temperature had finally climbed up to about 15 degrees today, I went out and found parts of our little cold hardy hollies poking through snow drifts that sparkled with ice crystals.

Seeing the holly brought to mind part of Psalm 96 from our Christmas Eve celebration:

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it;
  let the field be joyful and all that is therein.

Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before God, who will come,
  who will come to judge the earth.

And along with the perhaps better known carol, The Holly and the Ivy, it also brought to mind this traditional carol from Cornwall:

Joy to the world! The Savior reigns; let us our songs employ, while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, repeat the sounding joy.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Joy: First Day of Christmas

Joy to the world! The Lord is come: let earth receive her king;
Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.

With “Joy to the world” in our hearts and minds, I invite you to join me in looking each of these twelve days for instances of the joy that runs through all of creation, especially through experiencing the beauty and wonder of God’s world.

 When we started out to drive to Grand Island for the 10:00 Christmas morning service at St Stephen’s, the skies were gray. The world seemed very quiet, very calm, but also very gray and somber! But as we got out into more open country, a sliver of blue sky became visible in the northeast. Somewhere the sun was shining, and it might very well shine on us before the day was done.

Joy to the world! The Savior reigns; let us our songs employ, while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, repeat the sounding joy.

Christmas Joy

Joy to the world! The Lord is come: let earth receive her king;
Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.
(Hymn 100)

We celebrate the birth of Christ, God’s coming to live among us, during the darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere. Our often glorious sunrises and sunsets this time of year, the stars on a cold, clear night, and the Christmas lights shining through the darkness in the open country all help us to understand John’s Gospel (John 1:5): “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

We Episcopalians celebrate Christmas for twelve days. With “Joy to the world” in our hearts and minds, I invite you to join me in looking each of these twelve days for instances of the joy that runs through all of creation, especially through experiencing the beauty and wonder of God’s world.

Our Christmas Gospel from John (John 1:1-14) begins by articulating the connections among God’s creation of the world, Christ, life, and light:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The wonders of the world around us not only help us stay connected to joy; they also remind us that God is God, the creator and sustainer of all that is in the entire universe, and they help to strengthen our connection to God.

Joy to the world! The Savior reigns; let us our songs employ, while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, repeat the sounding joy.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Advent 4: Magnificat

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)

The 4th Sunday of Advent we remember Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-55)  and the joyful Song of Mary, the Magnificat. Mary's song begins with praising God and talking 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.

The Magnificat has come to us through the centuries not only in Scripture but in beautiful choral settings. While an analysis of the song reveals these three parts, it has an integrity to it that suggests that we should be careful not to take one part of this passage without the others. We tend to focus on the relationship between Mary and God or on the fulfillment of the promise to Israel, but the inversion of the economic and political order will be omitted in the preaching or teaching in many churches tomorrow morning.

The effects of climate change are especially harsh for people in less wealthy developing countries. Perhaps tellingly as we speak reverently of Mary the mother, some studies say that climate change impacts differ by gender as well as by location; women in developing countries are especially vulnerable to these impacts. (See Impacts on Vulnerable Populations on the EPA webpage about international impacts and adaptation in reference to climate change.)

In Mary’s song, we hear her joyful faith in God’s mercy and in God’s love for those lacking power and privilege. People in developing countries suffer from climate change that results from greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized countries.  Where is our merciful and loving God when the needs of some of the poorest people in the world are 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. There are people working hard to end this injustice and mitigate climate change to ensure a better future for all of us who share this planet. Activists are pushing for institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry; others are working to stop the mining of tar sands and to prevent the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry tar sands from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico; others continue to press our politicians to pass legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  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.

The November State of the Climate Report from NOAA is not encouraging. Among other things, there was this:
The 10 coolest Novembers on record all occurred prior to 1920. November 2012 also marks the 36th consecutive November and 333rd consecutive month with global temperature higher than the long-term average. The last month with a below average temperature was February 1985, nearly 28 years ago.
 And even though it’s hard to imagine on this chilly weekend in Nebraska, 2012 is expected to end up as the warmest year ever recorded for the United States. 

None of this makes our efforts so far look successful, but then Mary’s baby in the manger didn't look like a king. God works with and through whatever is available. What is available to God are people – scientists, activists, people of faith – who are willing to look at the science of climate change, look at the people who are affected first and worst by climate change, and then do what we can to change things. Mary had no power or influence, and yet because of her faith, God was able to use Mary to change everything for all of us.

While this week’s blizzard made travel difficult and caused some hardship, the moisture is welcome and the beauty of snow-covered fields, especially in the sunny days since the blizzard, has given us an opportunity to renew our joy in God’s creation. Our souls might well magnify the Lord out of sheer joy!

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 each of us to speak and act.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Advent 3: Prayer and action

The Third Sunday of Advent this year brings John the Baptist exhorting the crowd to “bear fruits worthy of repentance”. (Luke 3:7-18) and the crowds asking him in return, “What then should we do?”

John talks about the changed hearts of repentant people and their actions – those “fruits worthy of repentance” – being of one piece. Virtue ethicists going back to Aristotle have said we can acquire various human virtues by making a habit of doing virtuous actions. Today we talking about “acting as if” or tell people to “fake it until you make it”; it’s the same principle. So if I want to be the sort of repentantly generous person John describes when he says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”, I begin by giving away a coat or some food even if I don’t feel as if my heart is in this. When I get in the habit of doing such things, I will find that I have acquired the virtue of generosity along the way. On the other hand, John describes these actions as the fruits or results of a change in heart, and such actions should follow naturally from a deeply changed heart. The inner state of a changed heart and the outer state of changed actions are bound together.

John exhorted the crowd to have a profound change of heart and to act in a way that reflected the interior change.  Environmental activists exhort us to action, but sometimes fail to encourage us to do the inner work that helps us to sustain the outer work of advocating for a healthy environment.

On his Inside Passages blog , Kurt Hoelting recently posted on Embracing our inner tipping points on climate. When I went through the GreenFaith Fellowship Program, Kurt was on the faculty for our retreat focused on spirit; he led us in meditation and Qi Gong, and talked to us about how important this inner work is to our external work. In the blog post, he writes that meditation practice is often assumed to be a sort of “self-improvement project, a mere tool to reduce our stress and return some sense of balance, while making no demands on us.” He asks then if there isn’t “a deeper purpose that has to do with clear seeing, with the hard work of burning off the fog of our ego-driven perceptions”.

The news about our climate in recent weeks has not been easy to process or contemplate. As 2012 nears its end, we are on track for it to be the warmest year in U.S. history. Climate change is becoming more real to us in our weather records, our drought on the Great Plains, and the huge reality check of superstorm Sandy. With our political leadership still enthralled by the fossil fuel industry and the power it exerts, and with so much at stake, the work ahead of us is difficult. Even thinking about the magnitude and implications of the problem – a necessity if we are to advocate for significant changes – is emotionally and spiritually challenging.

Kurt Hoelting asks us to look at our own “inner tipping points”. What will move us from concern to action? He asks, “What more needs to happen before we decide to take it personally? And what does taking it personally look like for each of us?”

This evening we mourn the deaths of innocent schoolchildren and some of the school staff in Newtown, Connecticut.  The senseless death of so many children is difficult for us to look at and process. Even though we didn’t know these children, we care about what happened to them and are heartbroken by it. President Obama said this afternoon that “we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” Many people are echoing this thought, saying that the time has come to quit being timid about changing things so that this sort of violence will be less common.

If we look down the road, many children will suffer and die senseless deaths from lack of food, disease, or trauma from violent storms and floods if we don’t work hard to make this a better world with a sustainable climate.  The reality of our warming world is difficult to contemplate and won’t be easy to change, but our inner work of prayer can support and sustain us as do the hard work of advocating for changes that will result in less global warming.

In the Epistle reading for the Third Sunday of Advent (Philippians 4:4-7) Paul exhorts the Philippians to pray rather than worry. When we cut through the anxiety and choose prayer, says Paul, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” When we do the inner spiritual work, effective work in the world becomes possible. 

What then should we do? Ground ourselves in prayer and commit ourselves to effective actions.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Advent 2: Listening to what counts

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…” is the phrase that begins the Gospel passage (Luke 3:1-6) for the Second Sunday in Advent. Luke refers to various political and religious leaders in order to set the events he is describing in history, to pin down the year when John began preaching. Yet we pay much more attention today to the words of John than we do to anything the people considered “historical figures” said or did. What endures today isn’t so much what the rulers thought or did; what is important to us is what John was proclaiming out in the wilderness.

A big piece of environmental news this week was the publication of NOAA’s seventh annual Arctic Report Card. As you can hear in this video summary of the report, there are big changes in the Arctic; the Arctic “is entering a new state”, and these changes are taking place faster than had been anticipated.

The leaders of the world’s large nations are neither decreasing greenhouse gas emissions enough to significantly mitigate climate change nor to preparing adequately to adapt to our rapidly warming world. The political leaders – presidents and prime ministers -- whose names might very well be those that will serve as historical markers in the future – are not the ones doing the important work. It’s clear that we need to find ways to effect big changes fairly quickly without waiting for the world’s leaders to take charge of the situation. The people whose names are in the news most days may not be the ones carrying a message for us this Advent; we need to look around to find out what’s worth our attention.

This Advent, important messages are coming from scientists, like those whose research contributed to the Arctic Report Card. Other living things bring us messages if we will listen and look. Many of the biggest and oldest trees in the world are dying [see Mighty Old Trees Are Perishing Fast,Study Warns; the reasons for their dying and the way their loss will impact other living things deserve our attention. This Advent, important messages are coming from climate activists, some fairly well-known and others less noticed. Bill McKibben has just finished the Do the Math tour advocating for institutional divestment from the fossil fuel industry to effect the sorts of changes we need without waiting for the world’s official leaders. People dealing with the effects of Superstorm Sandy in the U.S. and the Caribbean have important things to tell us that can help us get a sense of how climate change impacts people now, and a taste of what we can expect on a greater scale in the future. And people around the world who are feeling the effects of droughts, floods, fires, sea level rise, or melting permafrost have much to tell us about the human implications of climate change.

Listening to these messages – today’s wilderness voices -- with our hearts as well as our ears can bring us to repentance and renewal just as John and the ancient prophets did for the people of their times.  

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Advent 1: Doing the math in hope

Our Advent Scripture readings, hymns, and prayers emphasize the themes of expectation, hope, and repentance.

Today’s reading from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 33:14-16) is a prophetic voice of hope in a situation that looked hopeless. People of faith are people of hope. A gift people of faith can bring to conversations about the environment – and especially about the climate crisis – is hope.

The Do the Math tour presented by Bill McKibben and was in Omaha last night. The Do the Math website summarizes Bill McKibben’s primary message:

It’s simple math: we can burn less than 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide and stay below 2°C of warming — anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on earth. The only problem? Fossil fuel corporations now have 2,795 gigatons in their reserves, five times the safe amount. And they’re planning to burn it all — unless we rise up to stop them.

An article published today by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press drawing on new international calculations on global emissions published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change says that rather than decreasing the amount of greenhouse gases, in the past year the amount increased by 3 per cent. The study’s lead author, Glen Peters at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway, says that the only possible way to stay within the goal of two degrees of temperature rise is to start reducing these emissions now and “throw everything we have at the problem.” Given how little we have thrown at the problem up to now, it seems unlikely to happen now.

With 0.8 °C degree of warming, we have seen all sorts of extreme weather in 2012, including Superstorm Sandy, the drought in the Midwest, and wildfires such as the one that forced evacuations around Estes Park, Colorado, this weekend. Imagine what two degrees would bring! Some scientists have said that reaching even the two degree limit would be disastrous , but it’s clear that our earlier failure to notice the signs and turn things around makes it nearly inevitable. Anything beyond two degrees changes our world in even more extreme ways, ways that are nearly unimaginable.

In today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 21: 25-36) , Jesus talks about paying attention to signs that are right in front of us, signs that people tend to deny or ignore. He describes distressing, fearful times and then says (Luke 21:28): “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” 

In Omaha last night, Bill McKibben said that even though the information he was presenting was very discouraging, he found it exciting in a way because we are getting “nearer to the heart of things”. And we are indeed down to what is essential to survival; we are down to questions of meaning and questions about our priorities; we are down to questions about where our hearts lie when we face the finitude not only of our own lives but of our biosphere, our planet, and the way of life it has supported. Our search for hope in this seemingly hopeless situation leads us to a place of repentance and conversion: Are we willing to do what it takes to make hope possible?

The Do the Math campaign is taking a page from the anti-apartheid campaign and asking institutions – including religious institutions – to freeze new investments in the fossil fuel industry and then to fully divest themselves of all fossil fuel investment within five years unless those companies change their way of doing business. When energy companies are willing to leave most of their current reserves underground, to stop exploring for new hydrocarbons, and to stop lobbying for special breaks and for the defeat of legislation that would promote a switch to other forms of energy, in short, when the fossil fuel industry puts life ahead of profits, then divestment will become unnecessary.

Bill McKibben said that people tell him this sort of campaign is impossible, that it’s a “David and Goliath” situation. He said these words were discouraging until he though, “Wait a minute! I’m a Methodist Sunday School teacher; I know how the David and Goliath story ends!” We know not only how that story ends, but how the entire salvation story ends, and that is why we hope when all seems hopeless.

The questions we must answer are Advent questions; the journey of the heart we take to repent and turn ourselves and the world around is an Advent journey. Where do our hearts lie? How do we hope when everything seems dark? Can we set aside lesser priorities of personal convenience and comfort in order to do what needs to be done for the greater common good both close to home and in corners of the globe about which we know very little?

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility…(From the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Praying the News

News about Superstorm Sandy and its after effects, new information about the dynamics and effects of climate change, and the convening of a United Nations climate conference in Doha, Qatar, give us much information to process.  One way people of faith process news is by sitting with it prayerfully, holding up our concerns and intercessions to God even as we listen to catch what the Spirit nudges us to do in response.

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

Please pray for:

People coping with the effects of Superstorm Sandy.  Superstorm Sandy caused more damage in New York State alone than Katrina did in the entire Gulf Coast region. (See Cuomo: Sandy cost N.Y. $32B in damage and loss.) Episcopal Relief and Development reports on some of the relief efforts. 

Seasonable weather. The U.S. Drought Monitor for the past week  shows most of Nebraska in the “exceptional” category – the most severe drought category. Unseasonably warmer or dryer weather in the winter makes daily life easier, but we pray for seasonable weather because our ability to grow food depends on it.

Climate conference Another UN climate change conference – COP 18  --  has convened, this one in Doha, Qatar. There are low (“modest”) expectations for this conference, and even if it accomplishes all it sets out to do, it may be too little too late. A Washington Post story on the beginning of the conference  quotes Christina Figueres, the UNFCC executive secretary, saying: “The door is closing fast on us because the pace and the scale of action is simply not yet where it must be.”

The will to look at what is happening to our biosphere, hearts to have compassion for all living things, and the wisdom and courage to do what we must to sustain life. A dedicated issue of New Scientist discusses seven areas in which climate change “is even worse than we thought”: Arctic warming, extreme weather, food production, sea level, planetary feedbacks, human emissions, and heat stress. The World Bank just issued a report called  Turn down the heat: Why a 4° C warmer world must be avoided. The report says that even if the emissions pledges made at the climate conferences in Copenhagen and Cancun are fully met, there is still about a 20% chance of warming more than 4° C by 2100; if the pledges are not met, then we could reach this level of warming by 2070.

Avoiding disastrous levels of warming is not an easy task, and the powers opposed to limiting greenhouse gas emissions in the name of short-term profit and convenience are many and have a wide reach. The Do the Math tour from Bill McKibben and will be in Omaha this Saturday to talk about ways we can work for sustainability despite the powers working against it.

Compassion is something we cultivate through prayer and through gratitude. The more we connect with the natural world around us and with one another, the more we appreciate all living things, the deeper will be our compassion and our commitment to preservation of our biosphere.

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

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Least of These and the Environment

“Not a secular fuss imported into the church”

Hurricane Sandy brought home to Americans the human suffering that often results from the kinds of extreme weather that are becoming more frequent – and more extreme – as climate change caused by global warming accelerates. This huge storm, of course, was not the first instance in 2012 of U.S. weather extremes affecting people’s lives in important ways. An active and destructive wildfire season impacted parts of Nebraska, and the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado destroyed 600 homes. A Midwestern drought also impacted much of Nebraska. This drought, the most extreme in 50 years, has caused a rise in food prices that is felt far beyond the Midwest. (See A year of extreme weather – and little climate change talk   from The Washington Post.)

Around the world, the personal and economic consequences of climate change impact people. Those who already know that lack of food or clean water can threaten their security now face additional burdens as a result of floods, droughts, or storm damage. Haiti, for example, was not directly hit by Hurricane Sandy, but Sandy’s heavy rains resulted in at least 52 deaths and destroyed crops. (See Yet Another Blow to Haiti from A Natural Disaster .) 

Both a forum at the recent meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) in Auckland, New Zealand, and a resolution from our own recent Annual Council speak to the moral imperative for the church to do more to address environmental degradation and to lead in environmental stewardship.

Archbishop Rowan Williams chaired a public forum about environmental change at the ACC meeting. (The story from the Anglican Communion News Service – worth reading in its entirety -- is available here.)   The Archbishop said that “running out of a world to live in is a mark of our unfaithfulness”, and made it clear that environmental issues are moral issues for Christians, and not “a secular fuss imported into the church”. Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Southern Africa said “This is not a social problem, it is not an economic problem, it is not an environmental problem, it is a moral problem and it needs a moral response.” 

Something else Archbishop Thabo said resonates with the resolution entitled The Least of These that we passed at our Annual Council. This is the resolution that asks all committees, commissions, and parishes to prayerfully include as part of every meeting in calendar year 2013 the following agenda item: “How will what we are doing here affect or involve people living in poverty?” Our impact on the environment needs to be included in our reflections on this question.

Thinking about environmental change and the underlying issues of water, food, and energy, Archbishop Thabo asked a similar set of questions around what we do in the Eucharist. According to the report, he asked:

“When you are receiving Communion, have you stopped to think about the water that we use to mix with the wine? Where has it come from? How clean is that water? Have you stopped to think about...those who do not have access to basic and of the resultant illnesses that go with poor sanitation and water? When you receive...wafers, have you spared a thought for those who do not have food?

“During the service, out of the small chalice, you are all able to share. Have you not thought that you could replicate that, that there is a plenty in the world and no need for others to suffer?”

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Sound of Silence

 I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:1)

This week, in what will most probably be the 332nd consecutive month with global temperatures above the twentieth century average, another record of sorts was broken: for the first presidential election cycle since 1988, climate change resulting from global warming was not mentioned in any of the presidential or vice-presidential debates. With climate change already affecting the lives of people all over the world, talking about economic issues, military and geo-political issues, health, or any other topic concerning our future without taking into account the impacts of climate change – and the need to do something about it – is foolish at best.

On one level, this silence seems to be a purely political phenomenon. Even though the majority of Americans believe climate change is real and that we need to pay attention to the issue, politicians know that addressing climate change in any meaningful way will be politically difficult. Bringing down the levels of greenhouse gas emissions to a level that minimizes the climate change feedback loops we have already entered would require some hard choices. As Bill McKibben points out in his book Eaarth – and as many others have pointed out in other discussions – the changes we need to make won’t necessarily make our lives worse. In fact, our quality of life in some areas might very well become better. But the changes we need to make will be changes. Asking people to change the way we live takes political courage, a willingness to risk losing political power by doing something that needs to be done but that might not be popular.

When we start asking what all is involved here, though, the silence reveals itself as something deeper than a political phenomenon. The silence about climate change is rooted in traditional spiritual issues.

The old Simon and Garfunkel song The Sound of Silence included this line: “And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they’d made”, and it helps us name one of these spiritual issues. Our national failure to speak or to act in a timely manner to mitigate climate change is rooted at least in part in idolatry. We know that God created the earth and its living things, and we know that God made humans stewards of the earth, and we know that God cares very much about the people who face hardship because of global climate change. But despite knowing that and saying we worship God, a way of life that includes habits of convenience and consumerism seems to be more important to us than what matters to God. If we cannot let go of something to do what God calls us to do, that thing is an idol that has replaced God in our lives. As is often the case with idolatry, greed and fear and sloth prop up the false god.

As Christians, we are empowered to recognize and challenge false gods. We can and must break the silence around climate change. We can imagine that new ways of living might not only be bearable, but might in fact bring us closer to God and to one another. The agreed upon national political conversation does not dictate our conversation.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Little Gods: "We get our wealth from this business."

Part of today’s lesson from Acts (Acts 19:21-41) has echoed throughout the day as I've caught up with the news, especially about the news about the protests in Texas where TransCanada has begun building the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline.

In this passage from Acts, Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines (evidently miniatures) of Artemis gathered his artisans and others who made and sold gods and riled them up, saying:
Men, you know that we get our wealth from this business. You also see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost the whole of Asia this Paul has persuaded and drawn away a considerable number of people by saying that gods made with hands are not gods. 
Then Demetrius suggested that Paul’s words might very well cause people to disrespect the temple of Artemis, depriving her “of the majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her.” This caused a riot that went on for hours until the town clerk persuaded the crowd to settle this in their regular assembly so they would not be charged with rioting.

Paul was right, of course: gods made with hands are not gods! Given a choice between gods made with human hands and the Living God Paul worshiped, the only wise choice is God. There is only one God, even when making smaller gods and keeping a temple to a false god create wealth.

One reason it’s so hard to address environmental issues in our nation is the power of the fossil fuel industry. The executives of these corporations get their wealth from this business, and use of cleaner sources of energy such as wind and solar energy threaten their profits. Given a choice between energy from fossil fuels that creates the carbon emissions that have contributed greatly to our climate crisis and cleaner energy that can help keep our planet livable, the only wise choice is clean energy. But those profiting from fossil fuels choose wealth over life.

In Texas, protesters have been trying to stop construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. Unlike the resistance in Nebraska which is largely based on local – and very legitimate – concerns about the land and water in our own state, many of these protesters are concerned with the effects of the entire project, from the pollution and forest destruction where the tar sands are mined in Canada to the environmental dangers along the pipeline route to the vast amounts of carbon that will be released if the tar sands are refined and burned.

Among the protesters this week have been tree sitters – people sitting in trees that TransCanada is clearing for the pipeline. To help protect the people in the trees, two protesters on Wednesday locked themselves to logging equipment. Bill McKibben wrote about it in the Huffington Post. (See TransCanada Turns Sadistic in Texas:Keystone XL Protestors Tased and Pepper Sprayed ) Reading the reports about what the police called in allegedly did to the protesters is very difficult: chokeholds, pepper spray, and tasers.

Violence against environmental activists in other parts of the world has been on the increase. In June, the group Global Witness reported that over the past decade, 711 activists, journalists, and community members defending land and forests had been killed. In 2011, the total was 106 people.

When wealthy industries are threatened by people advocating for care of the earth, their reaction is often to bully the activists in some way, sometimes to the point of death. Like the makers and sellers of little gods in Ephesus inciting the crowd to riot against the Christians, those whose god is profit use violence against those speaking their truth about caring for God’s creation and defending the living things that depend on climate stability.
O God, our Father, whose Son forgave his enemies while he was suffering shame and death: Strengthen those who suffer for the sake of conscience; when they are accused, save them from speaking in hate; when they are rejected, save them from bitterness; when they are imprisoned, save them from despair; and to us your servants, give grace to respect their witness and to discern the truth, that our society may be cleansed and strengthened. This we ask for the sake of Jesus Christ, our merciful and righteous Judge. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 823)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

News for the Poor

[Jesus] stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:16b-21)

With the publication this week of the 2nd edition of the Climate Vulnerability Monitor and concern about food prices rising because of the effects of extreme weather on food production, today’s Gospel lesson gives us a lens for hearing this news about the negative effects of climate change that are affecting the poorest people in the world first and worst.

After reading Isaiah’s words about bringing good news to the poor, Jesus says the scripture has been fulfilled in his speaking the words of the prophet. The prophetic message that God’s promise is to bring good news to the poor, freedom to captives and oppressed people, and healing of all kinds is fulfilled in the life of Christ.

The news in the Climate Vulnerability Monitor is not good news for the poor. It’s not good news for anyone, but especially not for people who don’t have much in the first place. In the summary of the study’s findings  is the statement “Climate injustice is extreme”. Another of the findings sheds light on what this injustice means in terms of human life: failure to act to stop climate change could cause more than 100 million deaths between now and 2030. More than 100 million deaths in the next eighteen years!

Oxfam International has prepared a report called Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices: The costs of feeding a warming world . The report talks about the effects of extreme weather caused by global warming on food production and food prices. Here in the United States, we are seeing the effects of this year’s drought on food prices. This report models the impacts of extreme weather events on the prices of key international staple crops in the year 2030. The report summary states that “our failure to slash greenhouse gas emissions presents a future of greater food price volatility, with severe consequences for the precarious lives and livelihoods of people living in poverty.” More bad news for the poor!

If Christ brought good news to the poor and if the Church is the Body of Christ, the Church is called to advocate for significant action to mitigate climate change beginning now. If we remain silent and complacent while millions of people die from the effects of climate change, we can no longer claim to have any good news to share.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Remembering Hildegard of Bingen

Today the church remembers Hildegard of Bingen, a remarkable woman of the 12th century. Along with writing down and illustrating her visions, she led a religious community, preached (an amazing thing for a woman in that time), healed people, and composed music.

Hildegard’s concept of viriditas speaks to ecological concerns today. Viriditas is “greenness” or green power, a creative life force that she sensed in all of creation, including plants, animals, and precious gems. The way Hildegard described it is a sort of spiritual and biological power. For Hildegard, God was the ultimate creative force; greenness was the presence of God in the world. Unlike many in the church in her time, Hildegard taught that the body and soul are integrated.

The NOAA State of the Climate Global Analysis for August2012[i] reports among other things that the globally-averaged land surface temperature for June-August 2012 was the warmest June-August on record at 1.03° C above average. Numerous reports in recent weeks suggest that we are nearing a point of no return on global warming, leaving us with a biosphere incapable of sustaining life as we know it.

Were she with us today, Hildegard might very well understand our situation. She taught that sin “dried up” the greenness, writing:

Now in the people that were meant to green, there is no more life of any kind. There is only shriveled barrenness. The winds are burdened by the utterly awful stink of evil, selfish goings-on. Thunderstorms menace. The air belches out the filthy uncleanliness of the peoples. There pours forth an unnatural, loathsome darkness that withers the green, and wizens the fruit that was to serve as food for the people. Sometimes this layer of air is full, full of a fog that is the source of many destructive and barren creatures, that destroy and damage the earth, rendering it incapable of sustaining humanity.
But humans are also capable of becoming conduits of viriditas. By opening ourselves to the greenness of creation, we tap into a deep source of creativity. Hildegard’s vision provides an explanation of why people engaged in environmental work today find times of renewal outdoors so necessary to sustaining compassion and creativity in discouraging times.

Here’s some of Hildegard’s music with photos of some of the beauties of creation that inspired Hildegard. This particular video contains several photos of butterflies, especially appropriate during the September monarch migration.

 More about Hildegard is available from the Holy Women, Holy Men blog. The Spirituality and Practice website  provides links to several resources.

[i] NOAA National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate: Global Analysis for August 2012, published online September 2012, retrieved on September 17, 2012 from

Saturday, September 15, 2012

"Wisdom cries out in the street..."

Proper 19B. Proverbs 1:20-33

A sampling of this week’s stories about our changing climate and its effects include these about this year’s record number of extreme weather events:

·                     Andrew Freedman reported 2012 Has Had Most Extreme Weather on Record for U.S.  on Climate Central.
          Kelly Levin posted Timeline: Extreme Weather Events in 2012 on the World Resources Institute’s WRI Insights website.  Along with giving a useful visual representation of some of this year’s extreme weather events around the world, the timeline includes the dates of some of the scientific reports connecting extreme weather events and climate change.

There were several stories this week about the astonishing Arctic sea ice melt this summer. A few of them are:

·                     A report from Nature entitled Ice loss shifts Arctic cycles  that looks at the effects of these changes in the Arctic on ocean circulation, ecological systems, and atmospheric pressure, all of which entail global effects.
         Climate Central posted ‘Astonishing’ Ice Melt May Lead to More Extreme Winters  which discusses how this record loss of ice could affect winter weather in Europe and North America this year. An increase in extreme weather events is expected with changes in the jet stream.
         A post from John Vidal aboard the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise suggests that the reported record ice melt may in fact be underestimating the amount of the melt. The Arctic Sunrise was traveling through an area that the data indicated was still covered with ice, but is actually about 50% melted.
Shifting from the Arctic to the warm waters of the Caribbean, this week brought a report that coral reefs in the Caribbean are “on the brink” of collapse from warming waters and increasing ocean acidity. When coral reefs collapse, entire marine eco-systems collapse.

Our Sunday lesson from Proverbs (Proverbs1:20-33) is in the voice of Wisdom warning as a prophet warns that scoffing at wisdom results in disaster. Given the warnings we tend to push aside and ignore, these words from Wisdom might get our attention:  “I also will laugh at your calamity…when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.”

Given what is happening to the Arctic, to the oceans, to the stability of our climate, our complacency seems irrational. At the end of this passage from Proverbs, Wisdom says that “the complacency of fools destroys them”. However, “those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster”.

Nearly every week now brings news about further evidence of climate change and its dire effects on ecosystems and the welfare of living things. This week’s passage from Proverbs might help bring us out of our complacency so we can make wiser choices and mitigate the effects of climate change. It also helps us on a deeper level. Perhaps those who listen to wisdom live without dread of disaster not because they will avoid disaster, but because their wisdom allows them to face disaster with inner peace.

It suggests that our response as Christians to climate change is both to do what we can to avoid complacency and advocate for a reasoned response to climate change, and also – no matter what choices humanity as whole makes in response to climate change -- to be wise ourselves, grounded in faith and hope, secure in Christ’s peace.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Children, Melting Ice, Fires, and More


Platte R. near Grand Island 8/9/2012
At St. Stephen’s in Grand Island, August began with a one-day Vacation Bible School with the theme “Recycling God’s Love”. With Psalm 24:1 – “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein” -- as our organizing Bible verse, we talked about the responsibility we have as God’s children to care for the earth and all the gifts God has given us. Our music director, Dan Korensky, wrote an energetic song for us based on the verse. Dan’s help was enlisted by his wife, Brittany Korensky, who took charge of VBS this year with help from other Christian education volunteers and the parish Green Team.

We talked about what happens to things we throw "away" and what happens to things we recycle, and we did “audit” of the waste from St. Stephen’s church and community center, separating out the recyclables that had found their way into the trash.

Gathering in small groups, the children wrote or drew the things in creation for which they are thankful. We gathered these together in a paper “quilt”, and Fr. Peek gathered their responses into a psalm to use in worship Sunday morning.

After lunch and games, the children used paper from discarded magazines and newspapers to make two collages. The results were stunning!

It was a good way to start a month that brought news of Hurricane Isaac, record temperatures, floods, melting Arctic sea ice, and more, and that is ending here in Nebraska with fires in the western part of the state. (See more information about the fires from the Lincoln Journal Star and KQSK radio  in Chadron.)

On August 20, the American Meteorological Association released an information statement about climate change. The concluding portion of the statement says:

There is unequivocal evidence that Earth’s lower atmosphere, ocean, and land surface are warming; sea level is rising; and snow cover, mountain glaciers, and Arctic sea ice are shrinking. The dominant cause of the warming since the 1950s is human activities… Prudence dictates extreme care in accounting for our relationship with the only planet known to be capable of sustaining human life.

On August 26 the extent of the Arctic sea ice fell below the record for minimum ice cover that was set in 2007. (See this from the NASA Earth Observatory.) Along with giving clear evidence of warming, affecting life for plants, animals, and humans in the Arctic, and opening more open water to absorb sunlight and accelerate the warming cycle, there are effects on the stability of the climate for the entire planet that are of grave concern. (See Why the Arctic Sea Ice Death Spiral Matters  by Joe Romm.)

Some parishes do a blessing of the backpacks (and of the children who carry them) at the beginning of the school year. We send children off to school hoping that they will learn and grow physically, intellectually, and spiritually, hoping they will grow to have meaningful and productive lives. We assume that they will experience many of the pleasures as adults as we do in Nebraska today: comfortable homes, access to clean water and adequate food, stable governments and institutions. So much of what we hope for our children depends on a stable climate!

Jesus taught us that children are important. Jesus loved the children, and we say we do, too. Talking about climate change, learning all we can about it, and making it an important issue in our common life is a way to truly love the children in our lives and around the world.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

St. James, Scallops, and Drought

The church today celebrates the Feast of Saint James. It’s perhaps fitting that as we observe the feast day of one of the two brothers that Jesus called “Boanerges” or “Sons of Thunder”, we have a chance for thunderstorms in parts of Nebraska that are sorely in need of rain and cooler temperatures.

The scallop shell is the traditional symbol for St. James. A Google search for “scallop shell, St James”   yields more than one explanation for the association of this shell with St James. There are some fine legends behind these explanations; some involve knights and/or their horses falling into water, being fished out, and then being seen to be covered in mollusks. Whatever the historical reason for the adoption of the scallop shell as the symbol for St. James, one delicious result has been a tradition of eating Coquilles St. Jacques (St. James Scallops) on the day.

We know now that shellfish of all kinds are endangered by ocean acidification. Ocean acidification and global warming are related; both are caused by an excess of carbon in the atmosphere, and both could be mitigated by controlling carbon emissions.  The ocean serves as a carbon sink; this helps make the effects of high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere milder than they would be otherwise, but it also means that the ocean has absorbed a considerable amount of carbon, leading to a less alkaline ocean. (A recent Scientific American blog guest post – The Flames of Ocean Acidification by Matthew Huelsenbeck  -- explains some of the latest findings.) Some call what’s happening in the oceans “the osteoporosis of the sea” because of the effect of this change of chemistry on the shells of all sorts of mollusks.  When scallops and other shellfish lose the protection of their hard shells, they cannot survive.

The shellfish in the sea and the plants, animals, and people suffering from the heat and drought in Nebraska are connected as all living things are connected. It’s no surprise, then, that carbon emissions that harm one also harm another. This summer’s high heat and drought conditions have helped many people finally see the connections among climate change, greenhouse gases, and hardship for living things. As we wake up to what is happening, we might take a cue from the Sons of Thunder and make sure our leaders hear us when we ask for action that would ensure a more stable climate. And maybe, if we make deep changes soon enough, there might still be Coquilles St. Jacques for someone to eat some July 25 in the next century.