Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Epiphany: Leaving by Another Road

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2:12)

Matthew’s story of the wise men following the star, finding Jesus, and honoring him as a king reminds us that we can learn a lot just by looking around — and up and down — and being aware of the world around us. The wise men read the natural signs. They followed a star that would have been visible to everyone who looked up at the sky, and yet they were the ones who saw it, had enough of a sense of wonder to realize that this star was something different and to reflect on its meaning, and got on the road to follow it. 

We are not surprised, then, to find that at the end of the Gospel lesson for Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12), the wise men pay attention to a dream warning them not to return to Herod. No doubt these observant people, whoever they were and wherever they called home, had already noticed subtleties of Herod’s behavior and questions about the baby that made them open to receiving the dream and paying attention to it. Matthew tells us that their response to the information from the dream was to leave for their own country by another road.

We call these people wise men, but I wonder how many of their contemporaries considered them wise. When everyone else ignored an unusual star in the sky, the wise men noticed it and set out on what may have been a fairly long journey because they thought the star was a sign of an important event. They brought extravagant and somewhat odd gifts to a carpenter’s infant son, and they said this baby was a king. And on the basis of a dream, they ignored King Herod’s request that they return to him after they had found the child. Instead, they did something unexpected, returning by a different way. 

Today we have people who notice the natural signs of climate change — signs such as the melting of the Arctic ice, the calving of glaciers, the changes in planting and harvest times, changes in rainfall patterns — while most of us either don’t see these things or, if we do see them, don’t wonder at them or reflect on what these things mean for us. Realizing how important  it is for us to mitigate global warming and plan the best ways to adapt to the effects of climate change that are already set in motion, they try to persuade leaders to pay attention and act. Sometimes leaders in government, industry, and the church seem to hear them. Sometimes our leaders make good statements about climate change or give speeches or homilies that sound as if things might change. And yet the amount of greenhouse gas emissions continues to rise, and global temperatures rise in parallel. Our wisdom is lagging behind our commitment to expediency, and so the little we do is ineffective.

When I read the Epiphany Gospel this year, I was struck by the wise men returning by another road. Perhaps we need to set down a different road. In particular, it seems to be time for Christians to take a new road, aligning ourselves with the wise ones of our time instead of the ones in power who for whatever reason cannot or will not create the significant changes we need to make in the immediate future. It may be time for us to do things differently in our own churches, too. Greening our parishes, encouraging energy conservation, and writing op-ed pieces are all good things to do, and they continue to be good to the extent that they build awareness, but they are not enough.

Environmental stewardship in the church is much more often than not treated as a side issue, an extra something that we tack on to appease the environmental advocates or to show that we are up on contemporary issues. Even if we know in our heads that climate change threatens everything else we do — all of our financial stability, our programs, many of our buildings, and eventually the welfare of all of our people — we have not allowed that knowledge to penetrate our hearts or our guts, where our intuitions and dreams would show us a different way to go about being the church. 

When we can be in a worship service for an hour and never have any inkling from any of the prayers, announcements, or preaching that climate change is an issue, or when we can sit in committee meetings or church councils and never be asked to consider global warming as we plan, then there is a wide gap between what we know at some level in our heads and what has seeped in deeply enough to really change our direction. At the very least this century, the church should be aware that the work of caring for those who are poor, hungry, refugees, or in spiritual anguish will increase as the effects of climate change worsen and become more widespread, and we should be planning to act on that awareness. And to really be serving as Christ’s body in this world in this century, we should be leading by word and example to mitigate the extent of global warming, showing our awareness of what is happening to our world and making major shifts in our priorities that reflect a deeply felt knowledge of what is happening.

What does that different road look like for us? I suspect we may not know until we commit ourselves to taking it. We may need to make a new road by walking, by being intentional about remembering climate change and remembering the reality of today’s world whenever and wherever we do the work of the church. The old roads lead us back to the expediency of the status quo, and that is killing us. Like the wise men, we need to change course and choose a different road.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Living In Hope

For twelve days, we have immersed ourselves in the story of the Incarnation as we celebrate Christmas. We have been reminded of God’s love for this world and have heard about the light that shines in the darkness, and we have begun the secular new year. Both Christmas and the new year are times of hope. 

The series of blog posts begun here on the Green Sprouts page toward the end of Advent (Advent: Where Is Hope?, Truth and Hope, and The Present Reality) laid out some of the questions and facts to consider as we think about hope for this year and beyond. 

Our eerily warm weather of Advent is gone, replaced by a deep chill and some snow in Nebraska. Even people who much prefer warmer weather have noted that “winter is finally here”; we know that more normal weather patterns are a blessing in many ways, especially in an agricultural state such as ours. But as a reminder that the weather this week in my own backyard and global climate trends are two very different things, the 2014 official climate reports have begun to appear. Andrew Freedman reports on Mashable that the Japan Meteorological Agency has now released preliminary data showing 2014 to be the warmest year since their record-keeping began in 1891. Freedman’s post notes: 
Other studies, using data from ice cores, tree rings, corals and other so-called "proxy" data shows the planet has not been this warm in at least 4,000 years, while other data shows that the level of the main global warming gas has not been this high in all of human history.
In this rapidly warming world, how do we live as people who believe that the light will continue to shine in the darkness? How do we live as people of hope, and what kind of message of hope do we who are part of the Church, Christ’s body in the world, bring to the world in this time that is unlike any other humankind has experienced? 

The Christmas story teaches us that what we hope for may come to us looking very different from what we expected. The Savior comes to us as an infant born in a stable, his birth proclaimed by angels not to the civic or religious leaders but to shepherds out in the fields.

Authentic hope differs from expectation. Hope is closely tied to faith. In the case of global warming, our hope is tied to faith in a good and loving God who created a universe that is ultimately good. Probably the thing we hope for in the case of global warming is something we can’t even describe or imagine. But there are some things we can imagine, and there are some things we can hope for without pretending that the darkness is not there.

A family faced with the terminal illness of a loved one can be hopeful despite knowing that they will almost certainly lose that loved one fairly soon. They can hope for a holy death for their loved one, a peaceful and relatively pain-free time with loving care. Similarly, we can hope in the years ahead to live holy lives, to love God and love our sisters and brothers with whom we share this planet. We can hope to care for God’s Creation, to care for the animals and plants whose lives are woven together with ours, grieving when they no longer exist and caring for those that remain.

We have seen in these posts that racism, greed, and violence are ingredients of our failure to act. These ancient problems need our attention now more than ever. Even as we work to mitigate or slow down global warming, we need to work harder than ever to end these evils and to tend to those who suffer the most from them. We need to pay attention to those suffering worst and first from the effects of global warming and alleviate suffering.

Hope that we might live holy lives in the midst of extreme difficulties includes a hope that we live lives of integrity and honesty. Even as we acknowledge the reality of climate change, we are called to be brave and creative and wise in working to mitigate its effects and give humankind its best shot at the future. We in the Church must put this work at the top of our agendas, realizing that many of the programs and concerns that were comfortable in the 20th century no longer can have priority this century. Following Christ must take precedence over following comfortable patterns.

As this Christmas draws to a close, we could continue business as usual, turning our backs on the light and wandering farther and farther into the darkness. or we can keep Christmas hope in our hearts and go out into the world to share the light of the incarnate Word.

Episcopalians have an opportunity right now to do something toward reorganizing our priorities. See the Nuray Love Parish’s Churchworks post One Thing All Episcopalians Must Consider by January 7th to find out how to spend a couple of minutes by January to encourage a greater priority for creation care in the proposed budget for TEC.