Tuesday, October 4, 2016

St. Francis Day: Extending the Circle of Compassion

Maybe it’s just that social media has made it easier to know about what is happening in parishes across the country, but it seems like St. Francis Day is celebrated more widely than it used to be. Parishes bless pets on or near October 4, and people remember some of Francis’s words or share images of St. Francis with their friends. 
Once we get past the sentimental side of St. Francis, we see a saint who showed great compassion to poor people, giving up his own privileges to live in solidarity with the poor. While it is nearly as easy to romanticize or sentimentalize his poverty and his compassion for the poor as it is his compassion for animals, when we set aside the sentimental side, his story is very striking. Francis took Jesus’s teachings seriously, and his life shows us what following Jesus can look like.

Francis’s compassion flowed out of his love for Christ. Francis did not neglect worship, and his attention to the words of Christ in the Gospel guided his heart and his mind, but he also did not neglect action in the world.  As Francis understood as a deacon, when the Gospel works long enough on someone’s heart and mind, the natural result is compassion that extends in an ever-widening circle.

The great work for Christians today is to extend that circle of compassion not only in wider and wider circles in our present world, but also to extend that circle to future generations. Compassion says that if we see the potential for living things to suffer now or 10, 20, 50, or 100 years from now, we should do whatever we can to alleviate 
that suffering.

We are told that St. Francis preached to the birds, and he is often depicted as a friend to the birds. The reality this St. Francis Day is that climate change is endangering the birds. Climate change is threatening all living things, but we are so paralyzed by this that this evening’s debate for vice-presidential candidates did not include a single question about dealing with climate change or its effects. We spend much of our lives acting as if nothing is happening. 

Bill McKibben recently wrote Recalculating the Climate Math, which very clearly explains why we have to leave fossil fuels in the ground and rapidly develop clean energy sources. Using new information from Oil Change International, McKibben’s essay argues that to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees C. “we’ll need to close all of the coal mines and some of the oil and gas fields we’re currently operating long before they’re exhausted”. 

We are nowhere near doing that. We may admire St. Francis’s compassion for the birds and for the people who stand to suffer first and worst from climate change, but our compassion is not yet great enough to overcome the fear of change that keeps us from doing what we must to address climate change in any meaningful way or even to talk about it very often.

Perhaps next St. Francis Day our churches could honor Francis by hosting serious discussions about climate change and its impacts, or by encouraging parishioners to advocate for action on climate. If we can find as much compassion for people suffering the effects of climate change and for the birds and wild animals and plants as we have for our domestic pets, we all might stand a chance of surviving this century.

Monday, July 25, 2016

How are the scallops?

The Feast of Saint James the Apostle
St. James Day is here again — time for this blog’s annual look at ocean acidification and its effects on shellfish. The concerns we had last year are still there, but one year farther into increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere that produce both global warming and ocean acidification. The data from the Mauna Loa observatory shows the carbon dioxide concentration for June 2016 averaging 406.81 ppm; the concentration for June 2015 was 402.80. Scientists think that we have now passed 400 ppm permanently; it will never be near the target of 350 ppm in the lifetime of anyone now alive.

Americans are bombarded with political messages this summer as the two major parties hold their conventions. So far, very little has been said about climate change, and its evil twin of ocean acidification seems to be off the political radar screen for the media, an awful lot of politicians, and many voters. Next Sunday’s Gospel lesson (Luke 12: 13-21) warns us against greed, against the accumulation of wealth and possessions with thought for nothing else. The reality of the unsustainability of our world gets dwarfed again and again by our greed, our desire to accumulate more while ignoring — remaining ignorant of — the price we will pay and that our children and grandchildren will continue to pay.

How are the scallops and other shellfish? They are threatened by our failure to put strong controls on carbon dioxide emissions. 

The Paris talks we were anticipating at this time last year are history. The challenge now is to make the targets from these talks more than a nice ideal. The challenge is to take climate change and ocean acidification seriously and to have the will to do what we need to do to significantly and rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This St. James Day is a good time to commit ourselves to advocacy for meaningful public policy to get us — and the shellfish and other living things — a chance at a sustainable future.

Here is last year’s post for the Feast of St. James:

St. James Day and the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Since the scallop shell is a symbol for Saint James, this blog has taken the feast day in the past to look at the future for sea scallops given the increasing acidification of the world’s oceans. [See St James, Scallops, and Drought from 2012 and Feast of St. James: Scallops and their Companions from 2015.] The same carbon pollution that contributes to global warming is also increasing the acidity of the world’s oceans, changing the chemistry of shell production for scallops, oysters, clams, and other shellfish. 

So how is our fight against ocean acidification going? How are the scallops this day, this year, and how are they likely to be in the future? 

When I looked over information about ocean acidification and shellfish from the past few months, the answers to these questions did not surprise me, yet I can’t comprehend them. The scallops are not doing well, and they are likely to do worse in the future. Moreover, the economic impact of the loss of shellfish seems to be growing more apparent to more people. Yet ocean acidification is increasing, not decreasing. We know it is happening, we know a lot about the harmful effects of ocean acidification, but we haven’t done anything significant to stop it. Because we allow all sorts of short-term concerns to prevent significant action on global warming, it’s not surprising that we treat ocean acidification, its evil twin, the same way. But why do we do that? Why do we prioritize our immediate, short-term comfort and our fear of change over the preservation of life? That’s the part I don’t comprehend. 

A new report on research done jointly by NOAA, the University of Alaska, and an Alaskan shellfish hatchery indicates that without mitigation, the ocean waters they studied in Resurrection Bay may not be able to support shellfish hatcheries by 2040, only 25 years from now. Ocean acidification and warming waters also threaten the lobster industry in Maine. Another study released this year looked not only at the vulnerability of the shellfish but also at the social vulnerability of the coastal communities that will be most affected by the loss of shellfish. Several coastal states are looking at changes in policies to mitigate the effects of ocean acidification on the shellfish industry and the communities that depend on the industry economically. 

It’s all very discouraging. However, Joe Romm reported yesterday on the probable end to the global coal boom. China’s use of coal has helped fuel the coal boom, but now awareness both of the health effects of carbon pollution coupled with a growing awareness of the threat of climate change to China’s future has resulted in policy changes to transition away from coal-intensive industries in particular and energy-intensive industries in general. Joe Romm’s post suggests that China’s transition to cleaner energy sources should in turn make clean energy sources more available to developing countries. All of this makes real progress from the Paris climate talks a little more possible: “The Paris talks should also make obvious to all what the world’s top climate scientists and governments already know and have stated publicly: The world has to go to zero total carbon pollution long before 2100 and indeed as close to 2050 as possible — before actually going carbon negative.”

While the focus of the Paris talks is mitigation of climate change, a serious commitment to decreasing carbon pollution will mitigate the evil twin of ocean acidification as well. Will it be enough? Is it worth the attempt?  The Gospel lesson this Sunday morning is John 6:1-21, which includes the version of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes in which a boy offers his five loaves and two fish, an offering that seems too small to feed the crowd but ends up being sufficient. All we can do to save the shellfish and keep climate change somewhere below the catastrophic category is to offer what we have, to make the attempt and find out later whether the attempt was enough. 

We have about four months until the Paris climate talks begin. We can offer our prayers and advocate with our nation’s leaders for a truly significant commitment to phase out carbon pollution soon enough to make a real difference. And even though it's difficult to think about, we can make the effort to learn more about what is happening, talk about it, and pray and reflect on it, and then perhaps find it within ourselves to make it clear to all those in power that preserving life, including preservation of as many ocean species as possible, takes priority over our short-term concerns and our fears of change. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Tale of Demons, Pigs, and Fear

Luke 8:26-39

Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. (Luke 8:35-37))
At a time when we need so much healing in our nation and in our world, this week’s Gospel text (Luke 8:26-39), the story of Jesus’s stop in the country of the Gerasenes, speaks volumes about our failure to do the things we need to do and ought to do. 

The horrible shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando was the big news topic this week. Along with the shock at the sheer number of people killed and the way in which their lives ended, it brought new perspective for some to the struggles of the GLBTQ community and to the issue of gun control. It brought out the best in some people, but the worst in some others for whom the shooter’s ancestry shored up their prejudices against Muslims. 

Meanwhile, the daily news from the campaign trail and the publication of climate data for May provided a too-familiar backdrop of news that might lead us to despair were these things not so much of the familiar background of our daily lives in 2016. It’s only when we stop to really think about what is happening that we really hear it.

The climate news for this week included the prediction that those of us alive now will never again see carbon dioxide concentrations as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory fall below 400 ppm, as well as the news that carbon dioxide concentrations in Antarctica had passed the 400 ppm mark for the first time in four million years. May 2016 was globally the warmest May on record, making it the thirteenth consecutive month to break monthly records, and continuing the string of 370 consecutive months of above average global temperatures. (Anyone born in July 1985 or after has always lived in a warmer-than-average world.) 

The Gospel story of Jesus’s brief visit to the country of the Gerasenes describes Jesus healing a man possessed of a “legion” of demons. The demons beg to be sent into a herd of pigs, who then rush down a steep bank into the lake and drown. When people come to see what is happening, they find the man they had known as a madman who lived naked among the tombs now in his right mind, and clothed and seated at Jesus’s feet. Their reaction? “Great fear,” says Luke. They ask Jesus to go away. Yes, the madman was healed, which is a good thing, but look what happened to the pigs, and the change in the man who was healed is pretty scary, too — just too different. 

We, too, are so scared of changes for the better that we ask Jesus to leave us alone. Don’t ask us to love our neighbor. We’ve allowed the oppression of GLBTQ people because instead of loving our neighbor, we have made excuses for prejudice: “We just aren’t ready for a gay (or female or black or…) rector (or neighbor or…)” or “I don’t have anything against gay people, but if I don’t laugh at what my friends say about them, my friends might think I’m gay”. We have seen gun control work in other countries, but our lawmakers are afraid of the NRA. And our scientists and engineers know how we can significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate global warming, but we have fears of changing from a fossil fuel based economy to a clean energy economy, and many of our politicians are as afraid of the fossil fuel industry as they are of the NRA. It seems that many people like the idea of Jesus healing people, especially those heart-warming stories of miraculous recoveries of individuals, but we don’t really like it when Jesus invites us to allow healing on a big scale. 

And so bigotry and violence and ignorance have gained a firm foothold in our time. We allow it every time we choose the familiar, comfortable, socially acceptable way over the wonderful new thing that God constantly offers us. 

The man who used to roam among the tombs was healed and able to return to his home, but his life doesn’t seem to have been worth much to his fellow countrymen. They were more concerned with the pigs they lost. They weren’t ready for such a big change.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Guided into the Truth

Trinity Sunday

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 15:13)

Much of what we read in John’s Gospel about the Spirit of truth, the Advocate, is hard to grasp. One thing we do know about the Spirit of truth, though, is that the guidance from that Spirit will help us see what is real — what is really real — and what is merely imagined or supposed. If we follow the guidance of the Spirit, we are grounded or anchored in reality.

The past several months have been stressful ones for me. Part of that stress is personal: I’ve been sick much of the time, family members have been sick, and two family members died. However, feeling extra stress seems to be widespread this year. Our national political conversation — if it can even be called a conversation — is unlike anything I remember experiencing before, and the lack of civility and the frequent lack of reason in our political speech seems to have seeped into other areas of our lives. Fear of where all of this might lead seems to be pervasive among people across the political spectrum. And those of us who are keenly aware of what scientists have been telling us about climate change from anthropogenic global warming realize that our decisions in this century — certainly our political decisions, but also our decisions in many other areas of our lives — have greater potential for good or ill than at any other time in human history. 

I mentioned to my spiritual director this week that I have been feeling disoriented in time and thought it had to do with all the crises of various sizes that have disrupted my life over the past year. Because of everything else that has been happening, the rhythm of my weeks and the rhythm of holidays and of nature’s seasons have been disrupted frequently. I was surprised when my spiritual director said a lot of people have been reporting the same thing. This has been an unusual spring where we live, with many spring blooms appearing much earlier than usual, but with a couple of spells of unusually cool weather as well. Some days so far this May have seemed like perfect “What is so rare as a day in June?” days, while others have felt like late October. 

But as I thought about feeling disoriented in time, I realized how disoriented many people are in space as well. How often does someone nearly walk into us — and how often do motorists hit something — as a result of being distracted by electronic devices? One thing I like about my iPhone is the escape it can provide if I’m sitting in a waiting room, but an “escape” that in reality leaves me right where I was is of course not a true escape at all; it’s merely a purposeful disorientation, a means of making myself feel like I’m someplace else. And it’s not all about electronics. We can travel around the country, for example, and never experience local food or culture thanks to chain restaurants, hotels, and stores. We can easily imagine ourselves to be someplace other than where we are.

For a variety of reasons, we find ourselves unanchored or ungrounded in all sorts of ways at precisely the point of history when we most need to connect with and understand the reality of what is happening in the world. We need to remain ever open to the Spirit of truth instead of trying to escape into a false reality, but instead of experiencing the guidance of the Spirit we often find ourselves instead in a swirl of thoughts, claims — many of them false claims — and events that seem all important one day and are forgotten the next. I suspect that one of the reasons we allow our leaders to get away with an inadequate response to global warming is that most of us are untethered enough from reality to believe it is less urgent than it is. 

Staying grounded or anchored in reality is a necessity for spiritual health. If we become ungrounded, we forget who we are (and whose we are) and we forget what we really believe deep down in our hearts. The state of ungroundedness allows just the sort of political chaos we are witnessing now, one major piece of which is the way we have collectively lost sight of the important task of caring for our one and only planet. 

Late spring is a great time to reconnect with the seasons and experience a deeper connection to our locale. Tending to the soil and growing some of our own food whether in a large garden plot or a container on a front stoop makes us aware of the season and the weather while it helps us slow down. Walking outdoors gives us a chance to look around and see where we are; walking lets us see the shifts in light as the day or the season unfolds. It lets us see which flowers are blooming and what sorts of birds, insects, and other animals are around. When we walk outdoors, we might hear the birds singing, a sound that is restorative for souls that have become unanchored.

Gently reconnecting ourselves to reality through intentional practices like gardening and walking allows us to be resilient in the face of the harsher truths of our world. Staying connected, allowing the Spirit to guide us in the truth, helps us find the strength, wisdom, and compassion to respond to the world’s needs as effectively and compassionately as we can. When we make a connection with the real world around us, we will find Jesus in that connection.

Trinity Sunday reminded us that God is relationship. If God is relationship, it isn’t surprising that we find God when we turn away from the false perception of ourselves as beings independent of one another and independent of our biosphere. If God is relationship, then of course we grow closer to God when we realize our interdependence and realize our true place in time and space. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Rogation Days: Praying the Bounds of a Warming World 2016

This 2016 version of what has become an annual Rogation Days post includes an update on CO2 emissions and a look at our trend of record-breaking warmth. While the past year has seen some encouraging developments — the Paris talks on a global scale and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church voting for major funds to divest from fossil fuels on a smaller scale — the importance of these developments lies more in the realm of increasing awareness and acknowledgment that we do have a crisis on our hands rather than in the realm of the sorts of big and enforceable changes in policies and practices that would be most effective in mitigating global warming. 

The great hope is that we might reach a tipping point of social and political will that precipitates those big changes before we reach more tipping points in the unfolding rise in global temperatures. Along with praying the bounds or limits of our biosphere, we need to be praying fervently for collective wisdom and courage in our common life. 

Rogation Days: Praying the Bounds of a Warming World

The traditional English celebration of Rogation Days, the three days preceding Ascension Day, included a procession around the boundaries of the parish (often coextensive with the boundaries of a village). At stops along the boundaries, the congregation prayed for the welfare of the village and especially for a good growing season, and the priest blessed the fields. The procession stopped several times for these prayers and blessings, often at important landmarks along the boundaries of the parish. Along with an occasion for prayer and blessings, walking the bounds or beating the bounds also ensured a public memory and a clear public proclamation of exactly where boundaries lay. Ensuring clarity of the boundaries eliminated disputes and gave everyone a common understanding of the bounds of the parish.

The Book of Common Prayer for the Episcopal Church adapts the tradition to our time and place by focusing on traditional rural concerns for the growing season the first day, commerce and industry the second day, and stewardship of creation the third day. In this way, the custom of offering prayers and blessings on the Rogation Days has been preserved in a meaningful way for our context. But since we aren’t living in old English villages, the traditions of creating awareness of boundaries and blessing the bounds has been lost along the way. Some Episcopal parishes process around a neighborhood, community garden, or large church property or drive out into the country to bless a parishioner’s fields, allowing the tradition of praying these prayers outdoors with a festive procession to continue, but any “bounds” that are walked lack the importance of the boundaries that were both declared and blessed in earlier times.

In this era of accelerated global warming, however, we might begin a new Rogation custom of observing and praying the bounds or limits of our biosphere. Through our lack of awareness of the limits of the amounts of greenhouse gases that can be released into our atmosphere without jeopardizing life on Earth, we have made our bounds smaller. Each year the world fails to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions and acknowledge the laws of chemistry and physics that determine the limits of our biosphere for human life, we leave ourselves less room for solutions that allow us to continue to live and live well. Our inaction is pulling the bounds tighter, leaving us less and less wiggle room. 

During the Rogation Days, we might prayerfully study the current state of global warming and pray about the bounds or limits we discover. 

Here is a place to start in considering our bounds or limits. It’s too early in May to have all the averages for the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for April, but we do have some sobering information. (Remember that the upper safe limit of atmospheric carbon dioxide to sustain life as we have known it on this planet is 350 ppm.) The highest-ever daily average of CO2 recorded at the Mauna Loa observatory was 409.44 ppm on April 9 of this year. (Second highest was on April 8: 409.39 ppm. The highest daily peak recorded at Mauna Loa for all of 2015 was 404.84 ppm on April 13 of that year.)

Ralph Keeling, the director of the Scripps CO2 Group, commented on the April record-breaking CO2 concentrations:
The larger story remains that Earth hasn’t seen levels this high in at least several million years.  Unless fossil fuel emissions soon drop significantly below current levels, I expect CO2 levels will surpass the 450 mark by around 2035 and the 500 mark around 2065.
 Barring some major breakthrough that allows excess CO2 to be scrubbed from the air, it is currently an impossibility for us to reach the target of 350 ppm that many consider the threshold of dangerous climate change effects.  I expect it will take at least 1,000 years before CO2 drops again below 350 ppm.
NOAA’s State of the Climate report for March 2016 tells a story of record global warmth. Globally, the first three months of 2016 were the warmest January-March period on record. Even more striking is this:
January–March 2016 also marks the highest departure from average for any three-month period on record. This record has been broken for seven consecutive months, since the July–September 2015 period.**
Our bounds are indeed being pulled tighter, and yet the urgency of the situation does not seem to be reflected in our national conversation either in the political sphere or in the religious sphere.

We need to put significant limits on emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases around the world to mitigate global warming. We can acknowledge the need for those limits and pray about them. As temperatures rise we are experiencing all sorts of big changes that place further limits on human activity. Agriculture is impacted, marine ecosystems suffer, and people are forced to leave places that have become uninhabitable because of rising seas, extreme temperatures, or lack of water. These are our new bounds, the limits within which we will try to live and continue to love one another and love God. Prayer and mindful meditation about those limits is one of the great gifts people of faith can offer now.

If we pray about those bounds and mindfully accept them, we may be able to find blessing there as well. A clear public proclamation of these limits coupled with a blessing of all living things inside these new bounds brings Rogation Days out of the realm of quaint Anglican history and into the heart of what Christ calls us to do today.

For stewardship of creation
O merciful Creator, your hand is open wide to satisfy the needs of every living creature: Make us always thankful for your loving providence; and grant that we, remembering the account that we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your good gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit live and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 259, Collects for Rogation Days)    

**NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, State of the Climate: Global Analysis for March 2016, published online April 2016, retrieved on May 3, 2016 from http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201603.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

"Do you want to be made well?"

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter 2016
John 5:1-9

When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6)

It was lovely this rainy morning to step into our newly repaired and painted sanctuary — the sort of delightful new thing that is in keeping with the Easter season.

This Sixth Sunday of Easter is Camp Sunday in our diocese, and we should hear more about that at announcement time. There’s something about spending time in the outdoors with new friends from across the diocese that makes the camp experience a consistent catalyst for spiritual growth for our children and teen-agers. And in harmony with the outdoor theme, today is also Rogation Sunday, the beginning of the traditional Rogation Days when we pray for a successful growing season and, as a sort of American update to the old English customs of Rogation, think about and pray about environmental stewardship.

For most of Omaha outside of our walls, though, this weekend is known more for the big Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting that brings lots of visitors here. One of the visitors this year, Dr. James Hansen, was here to advocate for a shareholders’ resolution on climate change. Dr. Hansen, a former climate scientist for NASA who is now a full-time climate advocate, also lectured at Creighton University Friday evening on the topic “Energy and Climate Change: How Can Justice Be Achieved for Young People?”

I’m pretty sure most of the people gathered at that lecture were unaware of the exquisite timing of having a leading climate scientist in our midst as we Episcopalians begin our annual observance of the Rogation Days, but it delighted me. In my work in environmental stewardship and environmental justice, I’m well aware of the very critical and uniquely challenging situation we are in with regards to climate change caused by global warming. Things are much more dire than people might guess from the disproportionately small amount of attention the news media and political establishment give climate change, and it’s tempting to be discouraged.

But as a Christian, I’m also aware of the hope in which we live always, no matter what. Hearing Dr. Hansen talk about the problems we face and possible solutions, and being in the company of more than 700 people who were willing to spend their Friday evening thinking about these things, was both sobering and heartening.

One of the questions for Dr. Hansen at the end of his talk was from a woman who said that when she had told a couple of other people that she was planning to go to a lecture about climate change, their reaction had been one of what she described as “fatalism” — basically the idea that there’s nothing we can do about this big problem, so why bother? Her question for Dr. Hansen was focused on how we can combat this fatalism: how can we help people feel empowered rather than fatalistic. Being immersed in this morning’s Gospel lesson, I realized how this new question about climate change can be answered at least in part by this old story from John’s Gospel.

This story has a lot to say about why we so often fail to do the things that would make us — and our planet — well, that would make us healthy, whole, and holy. And this story also tells us something about hope, especially the kind of hope that empowers us to take on big challenges.

This story in John’s Gospel is unlike the other Gospel stories about Jesus healing people. In the other stories, someone seeks out Jesus. Think of the story that precedes this morning’s lesson in John’s Gospel: the healing of the son of the royal official. John tells us that when the official heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee, “he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death.” Jesus says the word, and on his way home the royal official learns that his son’s fever has left him. Or think of the man whose friends lowered him through the roof of a house lying on his mat when they couldn’t get near the door to bring their friend to Jesus for healing. Or think of the woman whose years of hemorrhaging had made her such an outcast that she didn’t dare to think of speaking to Jesus. But even she approached Jesus, though not in his direct line of sight, sure that if she could just touch the cloak of his garment she would be made well. In today’s passage, though, the situation is reversed: Jesus approaches this man who had been ill in some way for 38 years and asks him, “Do you want to be made well?”

It may seem an odd question to ask someone who shows up every day at the place where people go in hope of being healed, but then the man gives an odd answer. Instead of a simple, “Yes, I want to be healed”, he gives an explanation of why he hasn’t been healed. Tradition said that an angel periodically stirred up or “troubled” the water in the pool. The belief was that at the moment when the water was stirred up, it had healing properties, and the first person in the pool when the water was stirred up would be healed. The man explains to Jesus that he has no one to put him into the pool when the water moves, and that by the time he can make his way to the pool on his own, someone else always steps down into the water ahead of him.

In offering an explanation rather than an answer, this man may be telling Jesus more about why he doesn’t expect to be healed than about whether he wants to be healed. Maybe he can’t even make sense of wanting something that seems unattainable.

The puzzling thing is that even though what this man has done for years hasn’t worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future, he keeps on doing the same thing day after day after day.

Why does he do that? It could be that, inaccessible as the pool is to him, it’s still the most accessible means of healing he knows. Maybe he continues his vigil by the pool because it’s his only hope of any sort. Or maybe it isn’t hope at all that keeps him coming back for another day of the same thing; maybe the familiarity of even this discouraging routine holds some sort of comfort that keeps him from changing what he does. His answer to Jesus’s question does indeed sound like the answer of a fatalist as much as it does someone with hope. That may be because there isn’t that much difference between false hope and fatalism. False hope is simply the optimist’s way of being fatalistic. Both work on the assumption that nothing we can do or are doing will make any difference; both assume that our fate and our present choices are unrelated.

False hope is magical thinking, wishing that the familiar thing we keep doing that isn’t helping us at all might magically produce the results we want.

I recall some students from my teaching days who wouldn’t read the books or engage in class discussions all semester yet hoped — in this false sense of hope, I assure you — that they might pull a good grade out of the course at the end of the semester.

That’s false hope. Real hope is something very different. The hope that Jesus offers is always real hope. In this story, we, the hearers of the story, begin to see hope the moment Jesus notices the man and speaks to him.

The startling beauty of the story lies in what Jesus does next. Having heard the non-answer to the question about whether this man wants to be healed, Jesus says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Jesus answers the explanation by cutting to an unimagined alternative. Jesus does just what we celebrate throughout the Easter season: he shows us something new and unexpected, creating a way where there was no way, creating hope where there was no real hope.

The sort of hope that Jesus brings isn’t a passive false hope that somehow everything will turn out well without our changing anything; Jesus brings genuine hope that calls us to act by embracing the new thing that Jesus offers. Real hope can feel risky because it calls us to abandon something familiar in favor of something we haven’t even fully imagined.

“Stand up, take your mat and walk” would be a cruel thing to say unless we somehow know, as Jesus seems to in this case, that the person really does have the capacity to get up and walk. Jesus simply calls us to do what we can do. When we do have the capacity to do something different – whether we had that capacity all along or have through an encounter with Jesus experienced the beginning of healing that we ourselves have the power to accept and complete – then being told to get up and walk is exactly what we may need. When we have the capacity to make different choices, to choose health over sickness, wholeness over brokenness, holiness over sin, then Jesus calls us to get up and do something.

Individuals, parishes, communities, and all of us on God’s good green Earth get stuck more often than we might like. Often when we get stuck in a bad place we put our energy into reciting to ourselves and to others our explanation of why we can’t do anything else instead of putting our energy into the disciplined work of getting up and doing something new. We might dodge the question “Do you want to be made well?”, or we might express a vague desire for our own lives and our common life to be better — maybe we even dream of the assurance of a stable climate that can continue to support human civilization and diverse forms of life on our planet — but our inaction and our sometimes contrary actions answer the question “Do you want to be made well?” with a resounding “No”.

Do we want to be made well? That’s a big question for all of us. Because if we want to become healthy, whole, and holy in our own lives, in our parishes and communities, and in the biosphere that sustains life on this planet, if we tell Jesus we want to be made well, we are also telling Jesus that we are ready to make some changes. We are telling Jesus we are willing to imagine with him a way to live that differs from what we are doing now, and we are saying we are willing to risk getting up and getting to work doing something new. Jesus invites us into his creativity; Jesus invites us to be empowered to engage our creativity and find a way for all of God’s children to have a chance at healthy, whole, and holy lives.

The words of this morning’s Collect remind us that God’s promises “exceed all that we can desire”. May we have the grace and imagination to believe God’s promises and accept the real hope Jesus offers us; may we have the grace to abandon false hope and fatalism in favor of the full life Jesus offers us all. Amen.

Preached on May 1, 2016 by Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett at Church of the Resurrection, Omaha, Nebraska 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Exsultet! Rejoice!

"Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels...Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth...Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church..." (The Exsultet, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 286)

This evening as we move from darkness into light and begin our Easter celebration, here's a repost from April 13, 2009. Overcoming the strand of dualism in religion is a necessary to step to tapping into the deep compassion for the world that might move us to do the work of healing what has been broken in our relationship to the earth and the atmosphere.

A joyous Easter to all!

The Great Vigil of Easter is celebrated between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter morning. The determination of the time of the service according to the times of sunrise and sunset is significant, as the entire liturgy in its lessons and prayers and use of light, water, oil, bread, and wine points to the integration of spiritual things with the order of nature.

This first service of Easter begins with the lighting of the Paschal candle from the new fire. The deacon carries the Paschal candle into the church, and then sings the Exsultet (beginning on p. 286 of The Book of Common Prayer): “Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels…” As a deacon, I practice the Exsultet throughout Lent, and get very familiar with the words – a necessity when singing an important piece of liturgy by candlelight. The Exsultet is in my head and on my lips as spring begins, the days get longer, and the first tiny green leaves appear on bushes and trees. “Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth, bright with a glorious splendor, for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.”

Some of my non-Episcopalian friends, both believers in other traditions and non-believers, comment on the connections to the Earth season as if they suspect that either our joy in the coming of springtime might somehow eclipse or diminish the appreciation of the Resurrection, or that the Gospel story is a sort of culturally approved and maybe even a slightly shady cover for a pagan celebration. What this tells me is that there are lots of people both in the Church and outside of the Church who want to keep the physical and the spiritual well separated: dualism has many devotees in today’s world.

Among the many gifts of the Holy Night proclaimed in the Exsultet is this one: “How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and [we are] reconciled to God.” That image of the realms of earth and heaven being joined together in unity, and the linking of that joining to the restoration of a good and holy relationship between God and humankind get to the depths of the Easter message: in Christ, the chasm has been bridged. All of creation is infused with God’s Holy Spirit; the spiritual and the physical are intertwined. That’s why the things around us can serve as signs of God’s grace; it’s why we believe in the sacraments, and also in sacramental living in a wider sense.

The Exsultet ends with an entreaty for God to accept the offering of the Paschal candle: “May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning – he who gives his light to all creation, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.”

May we remember throughout the year that Earth and heaven are joined, and that the world around us is God’s good and holy creation.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday: Darkness coming over the land

From noon on, darkness came over the land until three in the afternoon. (Matthew 27:45)

I spent some of the time between noon and three o’clock this afternoon reading and thinking about the darkness that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include in their accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus. John’s Gospel account of the Passion, the one we will hear in churches using the Good Friday liturgy from The Book of Common Prayer, doesn’t mention this. But the synoptic Gospels all do, with Matthew and Luke (Luke 23:44-45) adding that the curtain of the temple was torn in two when Jesus was crucified. Matthew adds (Matthew 27:51) that “the earth shook, and the rocks were split.”

Commentaries disagree on the meaning of all of this. Some argue that this was a solar eclipse, while others say it is was a different kind of gloom. As thunderstorms and snowstorms swept across Nebraska on Wednesday, lots of us saw streetlights come in during daylight hours; we know that darkness at noon doesn’t necessarily mean a solar eclipse. Commentators also disagree on whether the Greek should be translated to tell us darkness came over the land or over the entire earth. And then there is discussion about the earthquake mentioned by Matthew: are we to understand that there was the sort of earthquake that today would be recorded by a seismograph, or was this report of a shaking of the earth more a way to describe the meaning of Jesus’s death?

No matter which combination of Gospel accounts and commentaries strike us as the best interpretation of this piece of the story of Jesus’s crucifixion, what stands out is the underlying claim that the crucifixion and death of Jesus was not only experienced in the hearts and emotions of the people who witnessed it, but was also felt or experienced in some way by all of creation. This is an important claim, because if we put any stock at all in the claim of darkness coming over the land (or the earth), we agree that the connection between Jesus and creation is such that the suffering and death of Jesus was echoed in the nonhuman world around him. In this, we affirm that our relationship with Jesus not only can’t be isolated from our relationships with one another, but that our relationship with Jesus can’t be isolated from our relationship with all of creation.

The Catechism in The Book of Common Prayer (p. 848) answers the question “What is sin?” this way:
Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation. 
Given that, it is difficult to understand why we in the Church don’t pay more attention to what is happening to God’s creation, especially since people who are marginalized by virtue of economic status or race more often than not experience the effects of pollution and climate change first and worst. Environmental degradation is still a side issue for many in the church, and we continue to pray, preach, plan, and act as if we were living in a world unaffected by the great changes happening today.

This Good Friday, this deacon finds it important to share something that got mention in the news this Holy Week but may not make it into the hearts and prayers of many worshipers on Easter Sunday. I share it in the hope that we might be moved to include the changes in the earth's climates and its effects on us and other living things in our prayers, our conversations, and our moral choices.

A paper published in the European journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics looks at effects of melting ice beyond the effects of sea level rise. Sea level rise itself might happen sooner than earlier predicted because of the sort of feedback loops scientists are studying. The paper claims that beyond the obvious dangers of sea level rise, cold meltwater entering the ocean can lead to changes in the circulation systems such as a possible shutdown of the North Atlantic Ocean circulation. One result of a slowdown or shutdown of this system is an increase in extreme storms.

Here is Dr. James Hansen discussing the main points of the paper:

In the transcript of the video, Dr. Hansen includes this preface:
The main point that I want to make concerns the threat of irreparable harm, which I feel we have not communicated well enough to people who most need to know, the public and policymakers. I’m not sure how we can do that better, but I comment on it at the end of this transcript.
Climate Progress has a piece by Joe Romm that both clarifies the main points of the paper and discusses some of the implications. (See Leading Climate Scientists: ‘We Have A Global Emergency,’ Must Slash CO2 ASAP)

Jesus asked his disciples to stay awake with him while he prayed the night before his crucifixion, but the disciples were unable to keep awake. Can we stay awake and aware in our own time to witness the suffering unfolding around us, or will we sleep unaware through this “threat of irreparable harm”?

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday in the Anthropocene

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.
(Litany of Penitence, Book of Common Prayer, p. 268)

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a season of penitence in preparation for Easter. Among the sins for which we repent is the sin of wasting and polluting God’s creation, a result of the sin of “lack of concern for those who come after us”. It’s a failure of love for the people of the next generation and the one after that, a failure to love our children and grandchildren enough to change the way we produce and use energy.

The ashes on our foreheads are a sign of our penitence and our mortality. As the ashes are imposed on our foreheads, we hear “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We are mortal, created from “dust”, the fundamental stuff of the universe. Religious people perhaps more than others are tempted to forget this from time to time. When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we say we believe in the resurrection of the body, but we Christians often speak as if we believe in the Platonic idea of the immortality of the soul instead. Reacting to a culture that tempts us to see ourselves as bodies without souls — the root of many sins — we sometimes overcorrect and begin to think of ourselves as souls without bodies. Forgetting our embodiment, forgetting that we are made of dust, can also be the root of sins.

The dualism resulting from thinking of our souls and bodies as independent of one another is one source of our failure to care enough about God’s creation. We talk about loving God and loving one another, but somehow think we can do that by being nice people who don’t want to think about the ongoing destruction of the biosphere since the concrete world around us isn't "spiritual".

If you’ve been following the national political conversation leading up to the presidential election, it seems the risk climate change poses to human life is not on most people’s — or at least most politicians’ and commentators’ — lists of most important issues. The destruction of the biosphere is treated at best as some sort of side issue. It is amazing that the biggest threat ever faced by humanity is given only glancing mention at best, and is still downright denied by some.

Pondering our own mortality as individuals can be difficult intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, but we recognize that coming to accept our mortality is necessary to our growth as mature Christians. Pondering the mortality of our species, and pondering it not in some distant age, is much, much more difficult, but equally necessary for Christians in this century to think about and pray about.

Phil Torres is a philosopher and the author of the book The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse. The book will be released in a week. From some of the reviews available, it sounds like Torres pits science / reason / observation against religion / faith / revelation (a different dualism from the soul / body split) and indicates that religious eschatology puts us in danger of not responding adequately to the very real risks to the survival of humanity we face in this century. Given this negative take on religion, it’s perhaps ironic that an article by Phil Torres published today on the Common Dreams sight gave me a deeper understanding this Ash Wednesday of the importance of pausing to think about and pray about our own personal mortality and the mortality of our species. Our survival might depend on our remembering our mortality, on our remembering that we are dust.

In Biodiversity Loss and the Doomsday Clock: An Invisible Disaster Almost No One is Talking About, Torres outlines some of the risks we face as a result of climate change and related forms of environmental degradation, and then notes:
We must, moving forward, never forget that just as we’re minds embodied, so too are we bodies environed, meaning that if the environment implodes under the weight of civilization, then civilization itself is doomed. 
Ash Wednesday brings us back to the reality of our embodiment. An adequate look at our own mortality this century must include embracing the reality of our environment.

Remember that you are dust.
Remember that we are connected to one another and to everything else on our planet.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Deep Faith and Candlemas Light

This snowy February 2 in Nebraska, I offer a repost from a year ago, with this update:

The darkness is definitely there. This is the year we found out that major oil companies knew about the relationship between greenhouse gases and global warming back in the 1980's but hid that knowledge and continued to promote the use of fossil fuels. They lied one of the biggest lies in all of history.

In our long campaign for the 2016 Presidency, climate change is a marginalized issue even though the current administration is finally talking about it. Many voters ignore it, either giving up on the possibility of anything significant being done to mitigate it or prepare for it, or else living in a sort of denial that involves telling ourselves that it won't be all that bad or that somebody will figure out some brilliant technological save at the nth minute. This gives major candidates permission to ignore it -- or even outright deny the reality of climate change -- or make broad, insubstantial statements about climate change as a sort of after thought to the issues we are being told are the important ones.

We have had some rays of light this past year -- the Paris climate talks brought the issue of climate change to the world's attention, and the General Convention of our own Episcopal Church voted to divest major funds from fossil fuel investments. Even as the weeks and months go by with whole-hearted follow up to these pledges unclear, we can point to the solid success of the grassroots campaign to stop the Keystone XL pipeline as an example of what can happen when we step out in faith even when the deck seems stacked against success.

Last year, 2015, was the warmest year on record. The effects of climate change caused by global warming are getting harder for the powers that be to ignore. Perhaps the fact that the dark side of global warming is getting too big to ignore is cause for hope, as the first step in addressing climate change is to see it for what it is.

Deep Faith and Candlemas Light

Call it Candlemas or the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple or even, as most people in the United States do, Groundhog Day, this day midway between winter and spring marks a subtle turning of the seasons. Even this year, when Candlemas finds most of Nebraska snow-covered and frigid, there is a noticeable difference in the slant of the sunlight and the length of days that helps us know in our bones that spring is on its way.

This day on the church calendar offers rich stories and prayers for reflection. And even though the church’s texts for the day have no immediate connection to concerns for caring for the planet or its people and other creatures, a subtle connection is there. [See Candlemas Light from 2011 about hope, or Mother Nature and Her Groundhogs from 2012 about embracing truth.] I wonder whether these texts connect in a nearly hidden way to caring for the earth because some old European calendars considered this the beginning of spring, but it's more likely that it is another instance where the Gospel message heard in our world points us to caring for all living things.

Today’s Eucharistic reading for the Presentation of Our Lord (Luke 2:22-40) tells the story of Mary and Joseph taking the infant Jesus to the temple. Simeon recognizes Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” and blesses him, and Anna begins to praise God and talk about the child.

This year Daily Prayer for All Seasons  from the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music has introduced me to a Denise Levertov poem called Candlemas. (Read the poem here.) Speaking of Simeon, Denise Levertov wrote:

What depth
of faith he drew on,
turning illumined
towards deep night.

Deep faith like Simeon’s offers a place to ground ourselves as we face the effects of climate change, which are both unfolding around us in our time and yet nearly beyond our imagination. Awareness of what is happening as our world warms can result in hopelessness as we are already past the point of no return even if we continue to work to mitigate warming and its effects. This hopelessness slides easily into cynicism, a feeling that there is nothing to be done and, hence, no reason to do anything significant to try to change things. On the other hand, some people handle the situation by embracing false hope, either denying in thought and/or actions that anything is happening at all or supposing that a few changes here and there — but nothing that changes our way of life very much — will be sufficient to keep everything much as it is now. (False hope is the coinage of greenwashing and of political crumbs thrown to environmentalists.)

Deep faith offers an alternative to both cynicism and false hope. Deep faith turns to the darkness, the “deep night”; deep faith sees the darkness and acknowledges it. But instead of turning away from the darkness or being swallowed by it, deep faith makes us able us to stare into the darkness and yet be illumined. It makes it possible for us to shed some of that light into the darkness around us.

Deep faith tells us that our prayers and our actions have some profound meaning, that our efforts are worth something even if we don’t get the results for which we fervently pray. Deep faith assures us that God is good and all will be well even when we can’t envision what “all will be well” could mean in a rapidly warming world.

Deep faith sustained Mary after Simeon told her, “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” It can be our sustenance in 2015 and in the years ahead. Tending to our souls, to growing our faith deeper, is essential to the church’s response to environmental degradation.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Epiphany: Overwhelmed with Joy

When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. (Matthew 2:10)

What has overwhelmed you with joy? The births of my children and grandchild overwhelmed me with joy, as have many moments in my children’s lives when good things came their way. Musical joy has overwhelmed me in concert halls and churches. I can count on being overwhelmed with joy at some point during the spring migration of the Sandhill cranes every year, often at the moment around sunrise when thousands of crane leave the Platte River. Similarly, spring flowers and autumn leaves have the power to overwhelm me with joy, as do the first beautiful snowfall of the year, a meadowlark singing in the spring, and the stars on a clear night in rural Nebraska.

I wrote at Epiphany last year (Epiphany: Leaving by a Different Road) about the need for us in the Church to learn from the wise men who went back to their own country “by another road”  and change our course on climate change. The church for the most part has treated environmental stewardship in general and climate change in particular as a sort of side issue, which says to me that 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". That post concluded by asking what that different road looks like for us:
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.
A year later, I’m even more convinced that we find our way home to a more stable climate once we take our eyes off the old road and commit ourselves to the task of creating a new way to respond to the needs of the world in this new world of climate instability.

We notice what is happening around us, using all of our senses. We let it seep into our minds and hearts. We pay attention to the signs that point the way, and we open our imaginations to help us piece together those signs so the way becomes clearer. We do the work of deep discernment, and when we discern the way — or at least the first few steps of the way — we start moving.

All of this takes a sturdy spiritual grounding. Staying connected to Jesus, we are overwhelmed with a spiritual joy that can support us through the work ahead. Along with that crucial spiritual grounding in Christ, if we build on that Christian joy and remain open to being overwhelmed with joy through the people around us, the art we create, and the wonders of God’s creation, we will be energized to head down whatever road will help to sustain us and other living things because we are passionate about whatever overwhelms us with joy.

The wisdom of the wise men wasn’t all about their ability to notice the signs that led them to the new King and then told them to go back by a different road. The wisdom of the wise men was also about their keeping their hearts open to being overwhelmed by joy. Joy will get us a lot farther down the road than fear will, and joy will certainly make the journey easier for us all.