Saturday, June 21, 2014

Extraordinary Hope in Ordinary Time: Tipping Points, Extinction, and Conversion

“Ordinary time” is what we call the part of the liturgical year between Pentecost and the beginning of Advent. This long, (liturgically) green season that stretches from late spring to late autumn is “ordinary” because most of the Sundays are named using ordinal numbers — e.g. this Sunday will be “The Second Sunday after Pentecost”. 

Outside of the church, ordinary time (or ordinary times) simply refers to a time when nothing particularly unusual or noteworthy is happening. Some stretches of summer days can feel very ordinary; for some, those long, ordinary days  when we have a bit more time to relax and simply live are the best thing about summer. 

But if we are paying attention, we know that despite appearances, we are living in anything but ordinary times. Recent climate reports tell us that we have passed the point where global warming can be prevented and are well into a series of feedback loops that point to catastrophic consequences beginning in this century unless we act very quickly in very significant ways. Biologists talk about a sixth great extinction, with a new study saying that species are now disappearing from the earth at a rate ten times faster than what they had though previously, which means that “plants and animals are becoming extinct at least 1,000 times faster than they did before humans arrived on the scene.” (See World On Brink Of Sixth Great Extinction, Species Disappearing Faster Than Ever Before

Trinity Sunday is the first Sunday in the ordinary time after Pentecost. Our first lesson last Sunday morning was Genesis 1:1-2:4, the familiar “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth..” creation story. It names God as Creator and emphasizes the goodness of creation, repeating the sentence “And God saw that it was good”, until the work of creation is done, when “God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) I decided to put my copy of the text in our bulletin aside and simply listen as the lesson was read; it is one I know well and one I enjoy hearing as it describes an ordered unfolding of the richness and diversity of creation. 

As I sat and listened to the lesson, I pictured the oceans with “swarms of living creatures”, the plants, the land animals, and the birds. I intended to sit back and enjoy this poetic listing of so much of what makes the world beautiful and life-giving, so much of what I love, but instead, I found myself holding back tears. 

I’ve read the climate reports, and I’m reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. I know where we are now, where we are headed, and that the sea creatures, land animals, birds, plants, and humans are all in various degrees of danger of disappearing. It is heart-breaking, especially in light of God’s pronouncement that it was all “very good”, and especially in light of Genesis 1:28, when God put humankind — us — in charge of God’s good creation. 

We who are alive today are living in a time so un-ordinary as to be nearly inconceivable even as we live in the midst of this reality. These times require from all of us an extraordinarily profound repentance and a deep change of life and heart. We have passed some tipping points. It is too late to prevent or reverse a troubling increase in global temperature, and it is too late to save us from some destruction from sea level rise. However, it is not too late to do everything we can to mitigate the destruction and to live as people who are sincerely repentant for our failure to rule wisely over God’s creation. 

Recent weeks have brought signs that conscious recognition of our situation and a willingness to turn ourselves around and make some changes may be increasing. The Turning Point: New Hope for the Climate is a new essay by Al Gore written for the July 2rd-17th issue of Rolling Stone. In it, Sen. Gore begins by laying out the reality of where we are today, noting that as a result of the recent climate reports coupled with the news of the irreversible collapse of a portion of the West Antarctic ice sheet, “many — including some who had long since accepted the truth about global warming — had difficulty coming to grips with the stark new reality that one of the long-feared ‘tipping points’ had been crossed. And that, as a result, no matter what we do, sea levels will rise by at least an additional three feet.”

However, he offers signs of real hope, signs that we may be at a “turning point”, what we might call a point of conversion. He points to a big growth in the use of solar power worldwide, to a greater willingness for governments to put limits on carbon emissions, and to signs that September’s UN Climate Summit and the 2015 climate negotiations in Paris will produce something significant. (He notes that many regard the Paris negotiations as “the last chance to avoid civilizational catastrophe while there is still time”.) And he compares all of this to other movements for social change, quoting poet Wallace Stevens: “After the final ‘no’ there comes a ‘yes’/And on the ‘yes’ the future world depends.”

Closer to home is the reality of the series of tornadoes, storms, and flooding rains in parts of Nebraska this week and earlier this month coupled with a sign of our willingness to begin turning around: a report from Friday’s Omaha World Herald on OPPD’s plans to reduce carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency. 

We do live in extraordinary times, but everything depends on something Christians know in our bones: the ‘yes’ that is the the beginning of a deep conversion, a willingness to transform our hearts and our lives so we are more closely aligned with God’s will. Sometimes our hearts have to be broken before we are able to let go of our old lives and allow that transformation to happen.

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson (Matthew 10:24-39) ends with this: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” We will find our lives, intertwined as they are with the lives of all other creatures, when we let go of a way of life that is no longer life-giving and say ‘yes’ to something new.