Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter Hope and Joy

 Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

I’m writing this after participating in the joyful celebration of the Great Vigil of Easter at Church of the Resurrection in Omaha this evening. Earlier today, I spent a couple of hours helping to staff Nebraska Interfaith Power and Light’s table at the Omaha Earth Day celebration. Meanwhile, along with posts about Easter celebrations and reflections on the end of Holy Week and the beginning of Easter, my Facebook feed has been full of the news that the State Department announced a delay in a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline permit. The delay is at least in part due to a case Nebraska landowners brought against the pipeline that is now going to the Nebraska Supreme Court.

Last April, Easter was on March 31. The post I wrote on the blog that week talked about hope in the face of despair. Along with the celebration of Easter, the occasion for this reflection about hope was a planning meeting is to help pipeline opponents be well-prepared to testify at the State Department hearings later in the month. That was a year ago; the pipeline permit has still not been approved, and now we know there will be another delay in a decision. This is good news that brings hope with it. With that in mind, I hope you enjoy reading the post below from a year ago expressing hope in our ability to stop the pipeline despite incredible odds being against us.

Easter Week: Mistaken Identity, Keystone XL Pipeline, and Alleluias

In the Gospel lesson for the Tuesday in Easter Week (John 20:11-18), Mary Magdalene is so caught up in her grief over Jesus’ death and her despair over the disappearance of his body that when she turns around and sees Jesus, she doesn’t recognize him. Instead, she mistakes him for the gardener. She comes out of her grief and despair enough to see what is right before her eyes when she responds to hearing the risen Jesus call her by name.

We can get so deeply into grief and despair that we miss signs of hope that are right in front of us. Just as the mismatch between the sorts of hopes and expectations Mary Magdalene had imagined and the reality of Jesus’ resurrection led her initially to fail to recognize the wonderful reality standing before her, the mismatch between our imagined expectations and a wonderful reality can keep us from recognizing that reality even when it is unfolding. Those of us who pay attention to the degradation of the earth and particularly to the discouraging math of global warming find ourselves at times grieving the plants, animals, eco-systems, and way of life we know and love that are beginning to disappear or change, and we can feel despair when we see the enormity of the challenges we face compared to the lack of political will to do enough soon enough to make much of a difference to a our future.

One of the many joys of Easter in our tradition is the restoration of the alleluias that disappear during the somber Lenten season. Some parishes do a sort of ceremony of burying the alleluias on Ash Wednesday to help children grasp something of our Lenten practices. When Lent ends, our alleluias at the fraction and at the dismissal bring notes of joy and hope and renewed energy that can remain with us as we go into the week to love and serve Christ.

Most of us experience the return of the alleluias as a welcome return to a spiritual norm of joy, while others, especially in times when we have faced a great loss or difficult challenges, when we are grieving or in despair, may find ourselves more in tune with the quieter but no less faithful wilderness walk of Lent. But Easter comes along whether or not we are ready for it, even when we are so deeply into grief or despair that we can’t imagine finding hope or joy again.

Yesterday evening I attended one of the planning meetings for people opposed to TransCanada being given a permit to build the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to transport Alberta tar sands through the central United States, including Nebraska, to Gulf Coast refineries. The purpose of these planning meetings is to help pipeline opponents be well-prepared to testify at the State Department hearings scheduled to be held at the Heartland Event Center in Grand Island on April 18.  The pipeline fighters face huge odds given the money and political power of the oil industry. It’s one of those daunting challenges that could make the alleluias ring hollow.

And yet when I listened to leaders from the Sierra Club and Bold Nebraska , and when I heard the discussion by those who plan to be at the hearings either to testify against the permit or to support those testifying against it, it felt like an alleluia response. We know that grassroots opposition to the pipeline has delayed its construction so far. We know that landowners, environmental activists, people of faith, and others will keep fighting the construction of this pipeline and the expanded mining of the Alberta tar sands. There is something very good and life-giving here.

Even if President Obama denies the permit to build this pipeline, the challenge of keeping greenhouse gas emissions to a level that gives us a chance of a sustainable future is a huge challenge. If our expectations and hopes are of a future that resembles today’s business as usual, we may not recognize whatever signs of a realistic hope we might encounter. That doesn’t mean that hope isn’t there; it doesn’t mean that grief and despair are the only valid responses to our situation.

When Bill McKibben’s Do the Math tour visited Omaha, he said that he became discouraged at first when people pointed out that he was involved in a David and Goliath situation, but then he remembered how that story ends. Easter tells us the end of the story, and it calls for an alleluia response.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

For another dose of hope, come to Nebraska Interfaith Power and Light's conference on religious environmental work next Saturday at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln. The theme is Creation Care for Congregations. More information and online registration is available on the Nebraska IPL website.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday: Grief, Compassion, and Hope

Our Good Friday liturgy helps us bear and work through the weight of grief that we experience as we listen to the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. It is one point in the church year when profound grief is acknowledged and expected, even as we live in the knowledge of the Easter story and anticipation of a joyful celebration of the resurrection.

The grief we experience when we think of Christ, God Incarnate, on the cross is an elemental grief that contains all our other particular forms of grief. What we say and do on Good Friday in response to the Passion Gospel can help us find our way through our grief for the living things on our warming planet and can help us form and sustain a holy, healthy response to climate change.

For people paying attention to what is happening, the beauty of springtime can be bittersweet as we stand to lose 25-50% of species this century from habitat destruction, pollution, and global warming and ocean acidification. (See the book The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert for a good overview of the situation; a short and clear discussion is in this post from Dr. Jeff Masters.) Not knowing how much longer the flowers, trees, and birds that we love will be found where we live or anywhere on earth for that matter brings some heartbreak along with the delight in seeing them again after a long winter. And of course we have grief for people who have already suffered from drought, fire, floods, sea-level rise, and other effects of climate change.

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 relieve the human misery that results from environmental degradation is the only choice we have as followers of Christ. Choosing to acknowledge the problems we face and working to address them with so little evidence that we can succeed is where we draw on our faith and our hope.

Choosing to act out of compassion allows us to get out from under the weight of our grief. Drawing on our faith for strength, we find energy for the work ahead. A response rooted in compassion is a holy and healthy response to our grief.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maundy Thursday: Lamentations and Love

In Holy Week this year, our Daily Office lessons include readings from Lamentations. These laments were written in response to the destruction and desolation of Jerusalem. We include them during Holy Week because lamentation is a sort of universal language – the words written to grieve one tragedy can help us express our feelings of grief as we remember Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion.

In light of the recent IPCC report on the impacts of climate change [see the National Geographic article New Climate Change Report Warns of Dire Consequences for a short summary of some of the key points and explanation of the report], sections of Lamentations can help us understand and articulate some of the grief most of us feel when we allow ourselves to hear what climate scientists are telling us.

The Book of Lamentations begins with the words “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!”, a lament that might very well apply by mid-century to some now populous cities along coasts or in hot, arid regions. We might even expand that lamen: How lonely sits the city that once was full of people and trees and birds! How lonely sits the ocean that was once full of living things!

Perhaps more heart-breaking, when read with the knowledge that the IPCC report predicts a future in which food production decreases to the point where there is not enough food produced to feed everyone on the earth, are these words from today’s lesson describing children dying of hunger:

My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out on the ground because of the destruction of my people, because infants and babes faint in the streets of the city. They cry to their mothers, “Where is bread and wine?” as they faint like the wounded in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers’ bosom. (Lamentations 2:11-12)

This evening as we observe Maundy Thursday, we will read the account from John 13 of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. When he has finished washing their feet, he asks, “Do you know what I have done to you?” He explains that even though he is indeed their Teacher and Lord, he has done the servant’s work of washing their feet. Jesus has not so much turned the hierarchy on its head as he has destroyed our ideas of privilege that we attaching to hierarchy, and he makes it clear when Peter protests having Jesus wash his feet that unless the disciples can accept this new paradigm, they have “no share” with him. Along with all of this, Jesus gives a new commandment that reflects this way of life: “Love one another.”

It’s clear that Christ would have those of us who now enjoy economic privileges make some hard choices about our way of life. What needs to change in our economy, in our ways of producing and consuming energy and food, and in the way we organize our communities, transportation, and all the other pieces that make up our daily lives so that we can serve others?  Are we prepared to deal with loss of species in our ecosystems and loss of agricultural productivity? How do we need to change so that all of God’s beloved children have a chance at life?


 The song “Before My Time” and the stark images accompanying it during the closing credits of the film Chasing Ice provide a sort of lament for what is happening already; the break-up of the Arctic Ice is a huge loss. Our witness to photographer James Balog’s courage in gathering and sharing evidence of what is happening gives some hope and human meaning amid the desolation.  

Is it any wonder
All this empty air
I'm drowning in the laughter
Way before my time has come

Monday, April 14, 2014

Crucifying Life

In the church during Holy Week we retell the Passion Gospel, reflecting on Christ’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion. We sing hymns and say prayers and hear sermons that call us to examine our own times of denial and betrayal of Christ, the times when our words or actions – or sometimes our failure to speak or act – have served to mock Christ or to drive another nail into him. In many churches, we will hear good reminders that when we join in acceptance of violence of any kind or fail to see and serve those in need we betray Christ himself and essentially deny our relationship to him.

What we will not hear in very many churches this week is the connection between our acceptance of the ongoing degradation of the earth and our apathy as witnesses to Christ’s Passion. We are witnesses removed by time but not necessarily by temperament from the events of Holy Week, and our Scripture readings and liturgies this week are meant to help us bear witness to Jesus’ crucifixion and the events leading up to it. How well we allow ourselves to see and speak of and act in response to what is happening fairly rapidly to our deteriorating biosphere, how well we witness to climate change and pollution, is connected to how well we serve as witnesses to the events of Holy Week.

We may hear this week that we are not very far removed from the frightened disciples and the fickle crowds, that to distinguish between them and us is an error. It’s not a surprising error since we tend to see ourselves – 21st century Christians or Americans or whatever our primary identity – as a unique and exceptional group of people, as did so many groups of people before us. One of the lessons of Holy Week is that we all sin in ways that are at their heart neither unique nor exceptional, just an old, sad story.

We make similar errors in supposing ourselves to be outside the category of people who will be affected profoundly by climate change and in supposing ourselves and all of humanity to be separate from the other living things in Earth’s biosphere. If we continue to ignore the grim facts of climate change and act as if our duties to God and neighbor do not obligate us to address global warming, we mock Christ and drive the nails deeper into Christ on the cross because we crucify all living things – humankind and the web of other living things on which our lives depend.

I invite us to expand our view this year and consider all living things, ourselves and all the others who share our biosphere, as we experience Holy Week. Watch for posts here for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to help in that reflection.

This verse from "My Song is Love Unknown" (sung in this video by the King's College Choir, Cambridge) expresses our tendency to be inconsistent in loving and following Christ:

Sometimes they strew His way,
  And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
  Hosannas to their King:
    Then “Crucify!“
    Is all their breath,
    And for His death
    They thirst and cry