Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Sign of the Sea Stars

Advent 1

The sea stars are dying, and awareness of the plight of the animals we less accurately but more commonly call “starfish” is growing just as we begin the Advent season.

With many Christmas decorations up even before Thanksgiving, Christmas stars are all around us as Advent begins. In our liturgical year, though, the Christmas star won’t appear until The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6), when we hear the story (in Matthew 2:1-12) about the wise men following the star to Bethlehem to find the new King.

Our Advent readings are about waiting and watching, and they have much to teach us about how to be faithful in this century when our greatest collective challenges are climate change and its effects along with other environmental challenges. Surely an awareness of what is happening to Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and ecosystems is an essential part of discipleship if we are continue to be the Body of Christ in this century’s world.

The plan for this First Sunday of Advent reflection was to elaborate on how we might watch and wait and witness to what is happening. But awareness of the new sign of the dying sea stars calls for a slightly different reflection this week. These stars call us to pay attention now, to care now, to speak and act, to bear witness, now.

The Washington Post reported on November 22 that Sea stars are wasting away in larger numbers on a wider scale in two oceans. This article says that neither the cause nor the probably impact on ecosystems is known. Cornell University Professor Drew Harvell, who studies marine diseases, says that events like this are “sentinels of change” and need our attention. On November 5, Time magazine published an article about the sea stars called Falling Stars: Starfish Dying from ‘Disintegrating’ Disease. This article emphasizes how unusual it is to have more than one species of sea star affected and to be seeing this disease over a wide geographic area, with one scientist saying that it looks like “millions and millions” of starfish might be affected.

And what does any of this have to do with Advent or the church? The dying of the sea stars seems to be another one of those environmental events in recent years that has never been seen before on this scale. Whether the cause is related to pollution, ocean acidification or warming, radiation, or some other cause, whatever affects these living things affects us all. We are called to care for one another, to love one another, and so we care for human life and for the lives of all the other living things with whom we share this planet.

The church is also in the business of wonder, especially as we go through Advent in preparation for Christmas. The loss of sea stars is a loss of a source of wonder and joy, surely a concern for Christians who are about to celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation.

What can we do about it? What can Christians who live far from the ocean and have no training in marine biology or ecology do? We can witness. We can pay attention, ask questions, talk about it, write about it. We can learn more about it and see what connection this might have to our own habits of consumption or activity, and then figure out what changes we might make in our own lives or our collective life. We can care enough to carry an awareness of the death of the sea stars with us, to pray for our oceans and the creatures who live there, to be conscious. We can talk about this and other seldom mentioned environmental concerns in meetings, in sermons, at social gatherings.

Perhaps most importantly, we can follow the exhortation found in both the Epistle and Gospel lessons for Advent 1 and be awake. There is a lot going on this time of year to lull us to a sort of half-sleep. Consumerism is hyped up, there are all sorts of entertainments from special sports events to movies and television specials and parties, and the dark and cold make all of these things an easy focus for us. Presents and entertainment are all fine so long as we can stay awake. Staying awake when the world calls us to numb ourselves to what is happening is the spiritual challenge of Advent. 

The sign of the sea star this Advent can lead us to better follow the Epiphany star that is a sign of Christ’s manifestation to the whole world. If we keep the sea stars in mind, we may be better prepared to be the Body of Christ in today’s world.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving: Gratitude with Eyes Open

Thanksgiving Day in and of itself is a celebration of a spiritual response to everything in God’s creation that gives us life and joy. Despite the considerable cultural and commercial baggage it has picked up over the years, at its heart an annual day set aside for an entire nation to express gratitude is a great spiritual gift. Whether by design or by accident, this national holiday calls us to an essential spiritual practice. Some years our hearts are full of joy on the fourth Thursday of November and the gratitude comes easily; other years it falls at a less joyful point of our lives and we have to be very intentional to discover what can move us to gratitude even when we are caught up in grief or troubles. Giving thanks when things are going well and life is a delight is important, but developing the habit of giving thanks in more difficult times is a great spiritual gift to ourselves and those around us.

While an annual call to give thanks is good, a daily practice of gratitude can transform our lives. The simple daily habit of naming five or ten things for which we are grateful changes us over time. The practice of gratitude requires us to notice bits of goodness, joy, or hope even in times when we might overlook those little bits. That noticing makes the dark times less dark and lets in a little light just when we need it most.

For people who pay attention to climate change and pollution and their effects on living things, there is plenty to tempt us to despair. Yet those who grieve the passing of species and ecosystems most deeply are those who have loved these most deeply. Even as we grieve and wonder how best to live in this changing world, we continue to notice and treasure the gifts of God’s creation: the sky, the earth itself, the seas and lakes and rivers, and all the animals and plants that fill them. The living things whose increasing fragility we grieve the most are the very things that allow a glimpse of goodness, joy, or hope that can save us from our own despair. A daily practice of gratitude opens our hearts in a way that inoculates us against paralyzing despair.

Both the cultivation of grateful hearts and the cultivation of awareness of our environmental problems are key practices for Christians at this point in history. Seeing and naming the world’s brokenness in terms of injustice, poverty, and hatred has always been an essential part of living the Christian life with integrity, and these aspects of the world’s brokenness in this century are intertwined with environmental degradation and the impacts of climate change. Accordingly, looking as fully as possible at the reality of our warming planet, a reality that can be difficult to acknowledge and perhaps impossible for us to fully comprehend, is an essential task for Christians today. But the practice of gratitude, the practice of intentionally looking for and recognizing the things both great and small that continue to bring us life and joy, is equally essential to the Christian life. Gratitude keeps us from being consumed with despair, but at the same time it keeps us from denying the value of what is being lost. We continue to love creation even as we grieve the loss of so much of what we loved; we continue to grieve loss after loss even as we continue to be grateful for all that we have loved.