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)