Saturday, December 5, 2015

Advent II: Repent!

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:1-6)

A week into the COP21 climate talks in Paris, it is too early to tell whether a strong enough agreement will result from these meetings. We hope for a just agreement that is strong enough to mitigate global warming sufficiently to avert catastrophe and not just delay it. People who understand the importance of these talks are eager for news in the days ahead. 

Although what the world’s leaders do with this opportunity will probably be what we remember most about 2015 in the years ahead, our news in the United States this week has been dominated by other stories. More gun violence, related concerns about both foreign and domestic terrorism, and coverage of presidential candidates seemed to predominate. Even with the effects of climate change exacerbating the conditions that allow terrorism to take hold, some American politicians and pundits have suggested that it is wrong to give the climate conference any sort of priority if we face any other sort of threat. 

A great flaw in such thinking is that we can separate environmental issues from other issues. The failure to realize the interconnections within the web that sustains all life on this planet is what has gotten us to this critical last hour attempt to negotiate an agreement that might avert a global catastrophe. A similar failure, the failure to recognize the interconnections among various “issues”, is one of the greatest political obstacles to success.

Despite the increasingly obvious human toll of climate change, we have a habit of thought left over from the
twentieth century that continues to make concern for the environment a side issue. That leftover way of thinking separates concern for humankind from concern for the earth. A pinched perspective on life, perhaps a legacy of the Great Depression, gave us a sense in the last century that we could — and probably should — be concerned primarily for humankind without being concerned about the rest of creation. Given the false choice between concern for people and concern for “nature”, we chose concern for human welfare over concern for the great outdoors. (The latter, after all, would always be waiting for us when we wanted to take a break.) We developed a false dichotomy between human welfare and the welfare of other living things that not only was an intellectual error, but has resulted in the biggest threat ever to human beings around the world. Many of our politicians and pundits continue this error. 

This week’s Advent Gospel (Luke 3:1-6) turns to John the Baptist proclaiming a “baptism of repentance”.  John the Baptist isn’t calling for a simple confession of our sins or a change in government policies. He is calling for a deep, life-changing reorientation of our souls that results in righteousness, in lives aligned with God’s ways, not the ways of the marketplace or the political forum. Such a reorientation of our souls results in a strong grounding in reality, an immersion that restores our sense of wonder and our awareness of the interconnections among things. This restoration reveals the fallacies in the ways of thinking we are offered by so many of the loudest voices in our nation. 

Luke begins today’s Gospel passage with references 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; those loud voices of their time aren’t the ones that echo down through the centuries to the Church today. What is important to us as the second week of Advent begins is the single voice of John the Baptist in the wilderness.

We are preparing ourselves to once again bear witness to the Incarnation, to God becoming human, bridging the divide between heaven and earth and showing that divide to be less real than we had thought. One way to prepare ourselves for that Christmas witness is to learn to think past the paradigms and categories the loud voices of our time would have us accept as real. 

Everything is connected. Interpersonal violence in our homes and communities is connected to violence between competing factions within nations. These forms of violence are connected to violence between nations and violence to the biosphere. Violence to our biosphere results in droughts, floods, famine, and rising seas that produce refugees who need to go somewhere. Violence to our biosphere results in lack of access to food and water and living space that easily results in conflict. Everything is of one piece. A nation or world that solves problems at the point of a gun will never be able to restore a sustainable biosphere. 

Repent. Say no to the false choices we are offered. Refuse to listen to the loudest voices. Instead, listen to the quieter voices that call us to peace and restoration. Listen to the voices that matter in the long-term, the ones that prepare us to better hear and follow Jesus, the one who taught us to love of God and love our neighbors. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Advent Hope 2015

Advent is about waiting in hope. This time of year, the days are short in the northern hemisphere. Along with the darkness from the longer nights, we have days like today in Nebraska when clouds and fog make even the daytime darker than usual. Some days, new snow or thick fog makes everything seem quieter than normal. Advent calls us to an inward spiritual observance of what we might be experiencing outwardly and physically; Advent calls us to look for signs of hope, pieces of light sparkling in the midst of spiritual darkness, and to enter into spiritual quiet so we can listen for the sound of good news. 

In the Advent I Green Sprouts post three years ago, Doing the math in hope, I told about hearing Bill McKibben speak in Omaha as part of his Do the Math tour. McKibben’s primary message that night was this:

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.

McKibben went on to talk about the then new campaign for institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry as a way for people to help address what our political leaders had been unwilling to address with any significant action. Divesting was one way of doing everything we can to change the trajectory of climate change by keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Divestment wouldn’t solve the problem, but it might be enough of a push to make a difference. 

Bill McKibben also said our precarious situation, while very discouraging, was also exciting because we were getting “nearer to the heart of things”. In that 2012 Advent I post, this was my reflection on the idea of 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?

I left Bill McKibben’s presentation thinking that the Episcopal Church needed to divest from fossil fuels, and a few months later found that other Episcopalians were thinking the same thing. We did not expect divestment to come easily. We were going forward from a position of hope and faith, knowing that we were doing what we needed to do even if we failed in our efforts. In the end, everything came together at this year’s General Convention to make it happen. 

After the General Convention of the Episcopal Church voted to divest major funds from fossil fuels and reinvest in clean energy this summer, it seemed to me that choosing to divest “was both a sign of our hope and a catalyst for future hope”. 

As I think about hope this Advent, I wonder at how quickly our efforts bore fruit. I give thanks that this small piece of the work before us went well. And I go back to the Advent questions I asked three years ago in light of the discouraging facts about climate change and what it will take for us to ensure a sustainable future for humankind: 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? 

These 21st century questions are timeless Advent questions; the journey of the heart we take to repent and turn ourselves and the world around is an Advent journey. 

The beginning of this Advent season brings us to the important climate talks in Paris. There are good reasons to think that the best we can realistically expect from these talks are promises to limit future greenhouse gas emissions significantly but not enough to do more than delay the catastrophe. In everyday terms, we might say this is “the best we can hope for”. 

But there is also genuine hope. Genuine hope sees the darkness for what it is, but looks and listens for light and good news. There is genuine hope that hearts and minds will change, that the voices of the activists outside the talks will be heard, that the voice of the poorest people in the world will somehow be heard among these leaders of the nations, and that the voices of the oceans and the birds and endangered plants and animals will count for something. And there is genuine hope that if our leaders fail us yet again, we will find other ways to ensure that fossil fuels stay in the ground.

Pray for those gathered in Paris, that may have wisdom and courage and the ability to understand deeply what they are doing this week. Pray for those of us not gathered there, that we continue to speak and act in ways that bring genuine hope. Pray for hope and in hope.