On Earth As In Heaven

On Earth As In Heaven

As a preacher I am blessed to hear a great sermon.  I know the challenge of crafting words and theology designed to move believers to live more faithfully or welcome unbelievers into the faith.  Fortunately, I hear such preaching often as I travel or attend worship at my home congregation St. Marks United Methodist Church in Bloomington, Indiana. 

Recently I heard one such finely crafted and moving sermon delivered by one of my pastors, the Rev. Jimmy Moore.  I invite you to read it, to consider the wisdom it contains and to be moved by his call to live with a more robust theology of Creation.  Here it is:

Creation Groans, Creation Glories

[Prior to this sermon, Rev. Moore Interviewed Dr. Jeffrey White, Professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and Director of the Integrated Program on the Environment at Indiana University.  This interview is available through St. Marks United Methodist in Bloomington.]

Sermon:  I want to tell you about a friend of mine.  She is great.  She is one of the most reliable friends I have ever had.  When my dad died when I was fourteen, she was there for me.  She just didn’t place any restrictions on what I needed.  When I reached my late-thirties and had a time of depression she was there for me.  She just said, “you come and be where I am, and you don’t need to say anything. Just be here and it is fine.” She is intriguing. She is graceful, and she is full of mystery and wonder.  And her name is Nature.  I have found that she has a really big job to do.  This is a big world with a lot of people in it.  She helps feed and clothe this world. 

I think that part of what I needed to know this week is that she is still present for me.  You see, this is not how I expected this sermon to begin.  This has been one of the more challenging weeks in my pastoral ministry.  Some of that I won’t be talking about and some of that I will.  I am doing a funeral tomorrow night for a family Mary Beth and I know.  This is public story, so I am not speaking out of turn, but a twenty-three-year-old man took his life. Then on Thursday, one of you called me to let me know there was a seven-month-old baby in Riley Hospital who was nearing the end of her life.  The family wanted a baptism. I went over there, was with this family and baptized this baby who is still on life support, only so that her organs can be harvested for other children in the hospital.

Often during the week I wonder how what is happening the week is going to run into what is going to happen on Sunday morning.  I didn’t see this one coming… but my heart has been super heavy and full.  My mind knows it is not smart enough for what I’m having to deal with.  I needed my friend.  So, ironically, I was doing a wedding in Greenwood and because I am not of good cheer when I drive up Indiana highway #37 (with all the construction), I drove through Nashville and up Highway 135. And the woods were there.  And, she brought some of her healing… and I will need more.  And so, will some of these people. 

What I will tell you is that I know most of you here.  I know you and I know if you had a friend and someone was treating your friend badly, you would intercede.  My friend needs help.  My friend needs you.  So, I actually do believe that the Doctrine of Creation is as potent for us as the Doctrine of Redemption.  It tells us how we are here and how God’s life breathed into the life of the world, and breathes still. 

Dr. White, in our interview, used the word, “sanctuary.”  I told the Sunday School class this morning if someone vandalized this room with ugly graffiti, you would be livid.  I would be.  Yet, the world is our sanctuary.  The cosmos is our sanctuary.  I do not believe it is the will of Jesus for us to ignore the fact that this world is in need.  I think one of the things that happened in the Christian tradition is that in earlier translations of Genesis, the word “dominion” was used to describe what humans were to be given in terms of our responsibilities in creation – we had “authority.”  I think that came subtly, and not so subtly, to mean we could do whatever blessed thing we wanted to do with the world and it would be alright.  More recently those who study scripture are liking and valuing the word “stewardship” more than “dominion.”   Stewardship says we have this care, this gift that has been given to us. 

I know that you have people in your lives that have been given to you – your children, your friends, your parents, your partners and your congregation members.  I am deeply convinced, deeply convinced, that the responsibility we have is the responsibility of love. We are called to treat creation like we would our children, our partners and our friends.  To love it that much.  To love it exactly that much.  And so, the Psalmist says, in Psalm 19 “The heavens are declaring the glory of God.”  Now, I have already told you that I don’t believe that science and religion are at odds. I do believe that when I step into this world I am stepping into a holy place filled with glory — FILLED with the possibility of being healed and blessed, filled with the fact that I am in a world that is here for us and in a world for whom we are to be present and caring and responsible. 

I will also reject the notion that somehow it is a violation of Christian calling to care for the environment.  I have heard people say, “if it is going to be burned up anyway, why should we care?”  Please don’t take that view toward my home!  It makes no sense.  This is the world you are given… right now, this is it.  This is the world where unless something unbelievable happens, your children will be living, and their children will be living, and their children will be living.  It is part of Christian calling to invest in that.

So as the Romans passage tells us, all Creation is groaning.  This groaning is swept up into reconciliation, into the longing of God to bring all things together.  Not only by creation but also by redemption, God is bringing us together to care for this world.  There are some bad things happening in this world.  There are some bad things happening in this State.  In Indiana, we are one of the most polluted states in the country.  That is not an opinion, that’s a fact.  So, we could talk about arctic temperatures warming.  We could talk about draughts in Australia or Africa. We could talk about what climate change is doing in the world.  But, I am asking you to do something different today.  I want you to know that our call today is to recognize what is given to us.

So, In the span of eight days I will do a funeral, a memorial service, I will have baptized an infant and will have done a wedding.  What all of these have in common is the word “cherish.”  In funerals and memorial services, we are invited to cherish the memory of the ones we love and cherish the faith that calls them to God.  In our marriages we are called, not only to endure marriage, but to cherish each other. You can laugh at that.  Everyone who is married knows what I’m talking about.  If you feel you are doing more enduring than cherishing, there is a problem. Right?  When we baptize babies, even when babies only have a few hours to live, we are cherishing the breath that is in them and the hope that is in them and the love that surrounds them.  And, we are called to cherish this world.

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Oregon Coast, Spring 2017

Let me close mentioning two theologians.  One is named Matthew Sleeth who was an emergency room doctor until he was on a vacation with his wife.  Sitting on a beach, she asked, “What is the biggest problem in the world?”  He said, “It is the fact that we are poisoning ourselves and it makes my job as a doctor more difficult.”  She responded, “Well what are you going to do about it?”  He quit as a doctor and became a pastor and works in creation care. 

He tells the story that around this time he took his son fishing.  It was a small town on a river and they took a guy named John with them.  He said my boy caught a fish and John said “Well, that’s a trout.”  The boy said “Dad, can we keep it?” and Matthew said, “No it needs to grow some more.” He released the fish and John looked at him in a strange way.  Then his boy caught another fish, not quite as big as the first and asked, “Dad can we keep it?”  Sleeth said, “No son, it’s smaller than the other one, right John?”  John said, “Well, frankly, I’ve lived here all my life and the trout you are holding up there is the second largest trout I have seen in my life.  The one you threw back was the largest.”  Sleeth said to his son, “Okay, we’ll take it home.”  As they were walking back to their car, John grabbed Sleeth’s arm and said, “I need to tell you something.  Do you see that sign right there?  It says that ‘This river is full of dioxins’.  Your boy, if he takes a bite of that fish, take it away from him and don’t let him eat anymore.  Children in this area aren’t supposed to eat more than one fish a year.”   

You, you good people of God aren’t supposed to eat fish more than twice a week.  This is a problem, in the making of paper and other products we have released these toxins and all over the community this is happening.  As Walter Brueggemann would say “This is an issue of neighborliness.”  What we do, does impact the other.

One more theologian is A. J. Swoboda, who is a Pentecostal Christian.  He calls himself a Pentecostal Environmentalist.  He says we should know that there are three things about Pentecostals.  He says: 1) “We believe the Spirit is moving and so God is involved in what is happening right now.” 2) “We believe in caring for the marginalized. This issue is marginalizing people everywhere because of what it is doing to their environment.  It effects the poor more than those who can get away from it.  3) Finally, he said, “We cry.  If you go into a Pentecostal church, you will find Kleenex all over the place that means we can be moved.”

Then he says this, “We believe in two conversions.  The first conversion is to God.  The second is a conversion (which sounded outright Wesleyan to me) is a conversion to be back to the world.  This is the conversion I am preaching today – that the God who loves you says, “love my world.”  Don’t pretend that what is true is not true. Christians don’t do that.

Wendell Berry said “We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us was good for the world.  We were wrong.  Rather we should adopt the assumption that what is good for the world is good for us.”  To go back to my earlier point, Wendell Berry, like Jeff, like me, like you, finds grace in the world. 

This is Berry’s poem The Peace of Wild Things that many of you know:

“When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go lay down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief.  I come into the presence of still water

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

Waiting with their light.  For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

Good people of God, this world, this grace-filled world, this groaning world is given to us. The call in the invitation of today, the request of today, is to take care of what we do with it.  It is full of glory and full of longing and we are called to be in it.  That’s the Gospel too.  Amen.

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Thy kingdom come on earth” is a core element of our foundational prayer… the Our Father.  How then shall we live?  How can we sing the great hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” in these days?  What if we had the eyes to see God’s realm in our every day living?

Save Us From Our Plastic, Jesus

Save Us From Our Plastic, Jesus

Few movie scenes are more memorable than “Luke” Jackson singing Plastic Jesus while sitting as a convict in a Florida prison.   Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman, was a 1967 classic, a favorite, a parable about corruption and the abuse of power.  It was the story of a poor man convicted of a minor crime and sentenced to two years in a prison work camp.

Luke is shown singing the song Plastic Jesus after finding out about the death of his mother.  It is a forlorn, haunting portrayal.  You can see this scene here.  Perhaps you already know the song, or the first lines at least: 

I don’t care if it rains or freezes; Long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus; Sitting on the dashboard of my car; Comes in colors pink and pleasant; Glows in the dark cause it’s iridescent; Take it with you … when you travel far.

The song was a parody, written a few years before the movie.  It is a spoof, an over-the-top critique, of a “Christian” radio station in Del Rio, Texas in those years that sold prayer handkerchiefs and other phony spiritual artifacts.  One could purchase “actual splinters from the cross of Jesus.”  Yes, there were dashboard figures for sale — ones that glowed in the dark — representations of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  This “border busting” high wattage radio station, when not selling religious wares, featured a disc jockey known as Wolf Man Jack.  To learn more about the song Plastic Jesus and its evolution, click here.

Without doubt, the most memorable and repeated line from the movie Cool Hand Luke is “What we got here is a failure to communicate.”  It is spoken by the warden and one other in the film.  For those who haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil this by offering more information now.

The idea of a “failure to communicate” and “Plastic Jesus” came to mind this month when I read that on June 7th, several United Methodist conference representative are planning to pass out plastic water bottles in downtown Indianapolis — as a Christian witness.  Help!  Talk about a failure to communicate.  Save us from our plastic, Jesus!

These plastic bottles are to be “relabeled with a message of hope.” Hope?  It seems what was intended was a symbolic action referring to the giving of a cup of cold water mentioned in Matthew 10 or Mark 9.  Unfortunately, for many, this is more an act of pollution.  Please check out this brief You Tube on Plastic pollution.

Should the church encourage such blight on creation? I know, I know, it may only be a small number of bottles — 500 or 1,000 and this is only a tiny part of the more than 35 billion water bottles used and discarded in the U.S. every hear.  What witness are we to give to such a danger to us, our children, and all our relatives?

Most bottles are used once for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes and then tossed away.  (There are health dangers from repeated reuse.)  Most plastic bottles don’t fully degrade for 700 to 1,000 years.  Ten percent of plastic bottles end up in our oceans and waterways killing millions of animals annually and over 2/3rd of our fish now test positively for plastics in their blood streams!  We eat the fish… and so on. 

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I write this as a small plea, a tiny protest to those who think it is a witness to pass out plastic water bottles in the name of Jesus.  Is it too late to reconsider? To repent?  To offer a more positive witness?  Think of the greater witness that could be made if there was an act of repentance, a public turning around.  A call to the local newspapers could generate quite a story of faithfulness, of Christians who care enough to change. 

This would be a real sharing of Gospel news, that actual cups of cold water are given and not polluting plastic bottles that will despoil our environment and diminish the health of our planet and our children’s children. 

Sometimes what is meant for good instead communicates an opposite message.  These folks who plan to give out plastic bottles are good people and their message is well-intended.  Sadly it is at the same time a misguided effort.  One can’t blame these good folks entirely.  The Indiana Annual Conference has avoided taking a clear stand on the importance of caring for God’s creation.  In fact for years there has been an effort to avoid working together on critical justice issues.

Last year, in June 2017, a simple legislative proposal that each congregation study a document calling for “Environmental Holiness,” for the care of creation was put on hold.  Some thought it was “too political.”  Others, among them some Conference leaders, thought it would take too much extra work.  So it was decided that consideration should be delayed. 

This year, June 2018, we have plastic bottles offered as our witness.  I know that good folks haven’t thought very clearly about how we care for God’s good creation.  What we have here is a failure to communicate… Unless we repent and believe.  So we pray — Save us from our plastic, Jesus.

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From the United Methodist Bishop’s pastoral letter entitled God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action, 2009.

The Council of Bishops made the following pledges: “With God’s help and with you as our witnesses—

  1. We as your bishops pledge to answer God’s call to deepen our spiritual consciousness as just stewards of creation.
  2. We pledge to make God’s vision of renewal our goal.
  3. We pledge to practice dialogue with those whose life experience differs dramatically from our own, and we pledge to practice prayerful self-examination.
  4. We pledge ourselves to make common cause with religious leaders and people of goodwill worldwide who share these concerns.
  5. We pledge to advocate for justice and peace in the halls of power in our respective nations and international organizations.
  6. We pledge to measure the “carbon footprint” of our episcopal and denominational offices, determine how to reduce it, and implement those changes. We will urge our congregations, schools, and settings of ministry to do the same.
  7. We pledge to provide, to the best of our ability, the resources needed by our conferences to reduce dramatically our collective exploitation of the planet, peoples, and communities, including technical assistance with buildings and programs, education and training, and young people’s and online networking resources.
  8. We pledge to practice hope as we engage and continue supporting the many transforming ministries of our denomination.
  9. We pledge more effective use of the church and community Web pages to inspire and to share what we learn.

            From God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action, 2009.

Rim Walking to the Eternal

Rim Walking to the Eternal

Almost autumn; rouge-tinged leaves hint that a soon-to-arrive-change is near.  Rotund tomatoes have captured a summer filled with both promise and tragedy.  It is time… to remember, to move on.

Saturday morning and a visit to our hometown Farmers’ Market.  A much-needed respite, today’s early gifts.

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Farmers Market, Bloomington, September 16, 2017

Our overripe national drama could cause one to despair, to wonder if a return to normal can be gained, or regained. 

From near and far are images of tragedy… a nursing home in Hollywood Hills, Florida, opioid overdoses down the street, a denuded Virgin Island paradise, mud, posturing politicians, mold, South Texas languishing, St. Louis marching in step with decades of accumulated grievance.  Politicians preen, speak sly words and pose for photo-op-displays-of-compassion.  These televised images vie for attention alongside heartless racist-tinged rhetoric.

Will our national identity be reduced to cheap reality television episodes?  Are we prisoners to shallow, disjointed actions and pathetic promises? “Everyone will be happy”!?  Is this reality?  Fake becomes real, while the real, the true, is declared fake.  Don’t lose your balance fellow pilgrims-of-hope.

Even here, especially here, there is truth… there is music, poetry and beauty.   So much fine produce at the market, stacked high, even okra (mostly for my spouse) and summers-end sweet corn (mostly for me).  The community band plays sweet summers-end music.  Abide With Me as it tunes up for the morning.  Tune to the “A.”  Some things do remind one of stability.  Abide…

 

Sweet corn, ripe tomatoes, sweet music and poetry abide.  Justice will prevail.  Our belief in respect and decency will survive this cruel passage.  It is clear in the acts of human compassion evidenced in the places of unimaginable destruction.  From St. Johns, a family shares space under their tarpaulin.  One visits a nearby hospital — just a brief word, a smile and a prayer.  We applaud as early response teams arrive in Texas and Florida, and ahead of them are thousands-upon-thousands of cleaning kits, (flood buckets), arriving along with a piece of our hearts.

How will we know the way?  What direction and pace shall we travel?  Poetry directs us beyond the limits of here and now.  Friend Walter Wangerin, Jr. calls our name:

The Wanderer*

I am the World-Rim-Walker.

I tread the sheer crags

Where night and daylight

Contour one other.

So we journey ahead as Rim Walkers toward the Eternal.  Between the tragedy and treat offered in the daily news cycles and our truest hope found in the dignity of human beings at their best.  Here and there… we move forward.

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Bloomington Farmers Market

These are our compass points.  Smiles and greetings.  New friends met and old friends greeted.  Fresh eggs, ripe tomatoes, kale and spinach now join honey, music and poetry to point to our pathway ahead.  We journey together fellow Rim Walkers

May your late summer be filled with laughter, joy and the reminders of taken-for-granted beauty all around.  Together let us continue to walk in ways that rebut and rebuke the vapid efforts to divert us from the ways of our truest hope.

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*Poem The Wanderer is from “The Absolute, Relatively Inaccessible” by Walter Wangerin, Jr., Eugene, Oregon, Cascade Books, 2017.

 

Our Slow Disasters

Slow Disasters: Irma, Harvey and Storms of Denial

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Hurricane Irma over Florida, September 10, 2017

September 12, 2017

One month ago, hurricane Harvey formed over the unusually warm waters of the Atlantic.  Hurricane Irma was not far behind.  Day by day since, we have been transfixed by images of calamity.  First the Caribbean Islands.  Then, the Texas Gulf.  Then, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina – a full month’s dosage of disaster.  Two of the most destructive hurricanes on record hit the United States only days apart.

What does this do to our limbic system, especially the amygdala, the mechanism in our brain that regulates responses to fear?  What happens to our moral compass?  Our spiritual perspective?  These disasters come on top of months of upheaval in our national body-politic.

In my consciousness at least, these tragedies have moved from my thinking “isn’t that sad for those poor folks; I might do something” to “these are my family and friends; I will respond!”

You might consider these hurricanes “slow disasters.” (Hurricane Harvey stayed for days over south Texas.  Rainfall was measured in feet, not inches.  Irma, moved ever so slowly, eventually covering the entire state of Florida.  Painfully slowly tracking up through Georgia and South Carolina, with ripping wind and record flood, and giving Atlanta the first ever “tropical storm” in its history.)

While these disasters seemed unending, they are but a tiny fragment of a much larger, slower disaster that has been unfolding over decades.  A few courageous folks spoke of this larger reality, this SLOW DISASTER.  As Hurricane Harvey approached his city, Republican Mayor Tomás Regalado said: “This is the time to talk about climate change.  This is the time that the president and the [Environmental Protection Agency] and whoever makes decision needs to talk about climate change.” Mayor Regalado told the Miami Herald “This is truly, truly the poster child for what is to come.” (See: Miami Mayor Calls on Honest Climate Change Talk.)  Brave man — truth teller he.

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Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado in 2014

In contrast, last week EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt opined, “It is very, very insensitive to talk about climate change in the wake of such extreme storms.”  Astonishing denial, this. 

In the face of such clear evidence regarding the changes that have been slowly underway for decades, Pruitt seeks to somehow blame those who would tell the truth.  He continues his assault on those who have been warning of such horrors surrounding the environmental degradation of our common home for decades. 

“NO, Secretary Pruitt,” we need to say,  “YOUR deceits and those who join you in such chicanery are undermining the future well-being of our grandchildren.  You blow and blow and blow your hot air into a continuing SLOW DISASTER.”  On the hurricane scale this is a magnitude 5 level storm-of-denial

Painful as it may be to admit, we need to have the truth spoken, here and now.  Calling any talk of climate change now “very insensitive” reminds me of what was said by a few following the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook, when it was suggested that it was an inappropriate time to speak about gun control! 

It may be an uncomfortable time to speak — but speak we must.  The evidence is abundant.  Our climate is changing!  We can trust science — our arctic and our glaciers are melting.  Seas are warming and rising everywhere, threatening low-lying communities around the globe.  While no one can as yet exactly measure how the magnitude of the hurricanes is directly related to human activity, we are shifting more and more from awful storms to catastrophes.   As David Leonhardt writes, “Climate change doesn’t seem to increase the frequency of hurricanes, but it does seem to increase their severity” (David Leonhardt, New York Times, 9-12-17).

I remember well the late 1960s when we were told that research wasn’t yet clear enough to link cigarette smoking with cancer.   It’s time to work with facts on the ground and in the air.  Meanwhile Mr. Pruitt a climate change denier, is pulling the plug on critical research his agency has been carrying out for decades because he doesn’t like the science pointing to a SLOW DISASTER.

Yesterday, in Chicago, skies to the northwest were of a hazy orange hue, as they have been for weeks — this from wildfires in Saskatchewan and Manitoba Provinces in Canada.  Smoke dims our skies from over a thousand miles away.  And today, from the southeast, circles of clouds are arriving as left over signs from Hurricane Irma.  Our global ecology and our local ecology are interrelated.  Climate patterns covering thousands of miles these are.  And we have before us slow disasters that are decades in the making.

A part of our dilemma in speaking about these tragedies is our cultural propensity to extend too easy blame or to believe in retribution.  More astonishing than Secretary Pruitt’s comments were those made by television evangelists like Jim Bakker who suggested that the hurricanes were a part of God’s judgement on our nation.  In the process Mr. Bakker was quick to sell survival kits to prepare his viewers for the end times.  Yikes — now that is a stretch.  

Then there is Rush Limbaugh who decided the increasing severity of hurricanes was simply being fabricated by the media — or by corporate America to sell more products by creating panic among the people.  He suggested that the severity of the hurricane hitting Florida was overblown.  Tell that to the folks in the Keys, Naples or Jacksonville today, Rush.  Of course, Limbaugh managed to fly out of South Florida to safety elsewhere just before the hurricane arrived.  

How do these “truthers” prosper?  What gives them any agency in our world?  Perhaps it is our inability to live with the complexities around the unintended consequences we face.  Perhaps it is the hope that we will not be implicated in the creation of these slow disasters or that we can avoid the lifestyle changes that will be required.  Perhaps we understand that folks are too easily blamed for things beyond their control.  I live in Indiana —  a place where tornadoes often occur.   I don’t think I cause them.  Even so, they seem to be gaining in frequency, size and destructive power.  It is not my fault that I choose to live here. 

However, each of us has contributed to small changes in climate that aggregate and rebound — an unintended consequence to our society’s lifestyle choices.  In places like Houston and Miami, there have been patterns of development or loose zoning practices that clearly contribute to the scale of flooding and hurricane damage.   Unwise development and the loss of barrier islands has been going on for decades in Louisiana, Texas and Florida — it has been a SLOW DISASTER.

How then shall we live?  Three things have benefited me:

1) I have chosen to change the way I begin each day.  It has been good for my limbic system — prayer before work or the news.  Instead of beginning each day with the newspaper or some work project, I spend my first moments in prayer, reading scripture and writings from other religious traditions.

It helps.  Here are some examples: 

  • From Buddhist writings I found, “Teach this triple truth to all: a generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.”
  • From the New Testament, Philippians 4:6 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
  • From the Prayer for Patient Trust by Teilhard de Chardain: Above all trust in the slow work of God.

2) Seek to be better educated and work with others on addressing climate change at your local level.  For me this has meant working with the Hoosier Interfaith Power  and Light (www.hoosieripl.org) group in Indiana and the Creation Care Alliance among United Methodists (http://www.inumc.org/creationcare).

3) Support groups that work nationally and internationally to address the reality we face with the SLOW DISASTERS surrounding climate change. 

So, in the face of denial and systems of blame, there are ways to work with a quiet and joyful heart to seek to join with others in “the slow work of God.”

Many of you have been doing this for a long time — I learn from you — together let’s do what we can to turn SLOW DISASTERS into MOVEMENT FOR STEADY RENEWAL IN HOPE.

Restoring Broken Connections 

Restoring Broken Connections

Citizenship depends on connection.   Constructive membership in any group is rooted in the belief that there is space in the institutional ecology for a person’s engagement and contribution.  Novelist, poet, farmer and cultural critic Wendell Berry put it succinctly “Connection is health.”

quote-only-by-restoring-the-broken-connections-can-we-be-healed-connection-is-health-wendell-berry-87-40-31-1.jpgBerry says that it is “only by restoring the broken connections in our society that we will be healed.”  It is not just the edges of institutions that are frayed and fractured today; there is a disconnection at the very center.  Nor, is it only a brokenness between individuals.  Linkages between institutions and their members, and linkages among institutions are also broken.

  • Yesterday, thirteen United States Senators emerged from secret meetings to propose a heath care reform package.  Amazingly the proposal is opposed by the hospitals and/or university health research institutions in their home states. 
  • Polling shows that fewer than one-fourth of the citizens in these states support the proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act, still this proposal is moved forward.
  • A majority of American Roman Catholics in the United States do not support the church’s views on birth control, remarriage, having married priests or women priests (Pew Research on American Catholics) and yet change seems unlikely in the short-term.
  • There is growing evidence that human caused Climate Change is a dangerous emerging phenomenon. (This research has been done not only by independent university or industry based scientists but also by researchers at government-funded institutions like NASA or the U.S. military); yet, recent government policy actions move us away from healthy responses regarding environmental degradation.
  • The opioid epidemic, with increasing death and higher HIV-AIDS rates, is at crises levels.  Local police and healthcare providers now find their own health threatened by the powerful fentanyl powders being used and potentially inhaled by the persons providing care.  These service providers make specific recommendations to address this fentanyl problem; however, our political leaders respond by doubling down on the failed policies from the 1980s.  This disconnect is about life and death for our healthcare and law officers, our neighbors and the communities in which they reside.

The list could go on and on: there is a disconnect between many trade union leaders and their “members,” between the governor of Illinois and the legislative leaders, between the gentrifying neighborhoods in our cities and the people who are losing their residences and communities.

I have long been disheartened by the brokenness in my own denomination, the United Methodist Church.  Not just the divide between those with theological differences, or the young and older members, or the urban and rural ones, but also the divide among our institutions and between institutions and the people.  My work has led me for example to see the brokenness between our seminaries and the local churches they were designed to serve.

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I recall the day when serving as a seminary president I spoke with a talented young woman, encouraging her to seek ordination as a pastor.  She paused a moment and said, “I don’t think I can trust the denomination with my vocation.” 

I mention this young woman because she represents, in my experience, a growing number of our younger folks.  Still we seem slow to reconnect with them.  The “disconnects” in the church among institutions, and between our institutions and individuals, some days seems insurmountable to me.  Having been both a pastor and seminary administrator, I understand.  And, I believe there is productive work to be done in healing such broken connections.

More recently, I joined a group of persons seeking to encourage the church to take seriously its commitments of care for God’s creation.  We proposed legislation to the annual meeting of my regional body, known as an annual conference.  There were persons eager to see the church begin to make a difference regarding our environmental actions.  To my sadness, this genuine enthusiasm was met by denominational leaders who sought to avoid any conflict by moving to table the proposals.  It was both astonishing and sad for the group, many of them younger folks, who saw these proposals as a way to seek healing in the divisions between our words and actions, between our local churches and the need for better care for creation.

When all of these signals are flashing danger, how might we respond? 

Well, this is for you to decide, dear reader.  It is also an opportunity to join with others, in existing institutions, and the creation of new ones, to offer places of citizenship and membership. 

For me, I will continue to challenge, and build new relationships, with the leaders of my regional body who seem so opposed to proposals regarding how our congregations might respond to climate change.  I will speak out on issues related to the opioid epidemic and get to know the persons on all sides of this challenge so that I might help make new connections.   I will challenge the efforts of my congressman and senator to strip medical coverage from more that twenty million persons in our nation, while giving large tax cuts to the rich.  I will challenge these congressmen to listen to hospital administrators and university researchers who may provide creative, alternative approaches to providing health care.

We are not alone.  Others are seeking to build connections as well.  Let me tell you about my friend.  A young pastor, serving in a small and conservative town in my state.  What is remarkable is that this young man would be considered by many to be too liberal, too concerned about the poor, too invested in environmental justice to fit in this small town parish.  So, when I asked how he was doing, I was prepared to hear about his difficulties, his disappointments.  Instead, I saw a broad smile and heard him say, “It’s great!  This is just where I am supposed to be!”  He acknowledged that he had his differences with some folks, but that he was enjoying learning from them and they from him. 

I have known this young man for many years now and seen him mature.  He completed his undergraduate and seminary work as an honors student — top of the class.  He becomes for me a sign of hope.  He understands Wendell Berry’s call to restore broken connections. 

How can I not strive to do the same?

 

 

 

 

 

The Unexpected Neighbor

The Unexpected Neighbor

The remarkable social philosopher and Catholic priest Ivan Illich was once asked, “Given what you suggest about institutions, what is the best way to make change, violent revolution or gradual reform?” Illich answered, “Neither, the best way to bring change is to give an alternative story.” (in David Cayley’s, The Rivers North of the Future).

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Ivan Illich, 1971, source: Wikipedia

Illich, was an iconoclast, a Christian visionary, a prolific writer — and widely read in the last decades of the Twentieth Century.  His brilliant critiques of our institutional practices, still provide a clear-eyed challenge and much valuable reforming wisdom, about our easy customs, traditions and ideologies.  Schools, hospitals, courts, governments and churches were all subjects of his analysis. 

He was more!  Each critique was not a call to anarchy, nor was it an invitation to some elaborate new strategy whereby those in power can better serve their “clients.”  He was about something much more basic — as basic as a table where all may share. 

His call is to reinvest in the original motivating principles behind our “helping” institutions.  He was about the nurturing of an underlying community spirit built on the essential importance of neighborliness.  He suggests there are ways of living into such community understandings as evidenced in his book Tools for Conviviality.

Illich spoke of “corruptio optimi pessima” or “the corruption of the best becoming the worst.” He writes, “Through the attempt to ensure, to guarantee, to regulate Revelation, the best becomes the worst.  And yet at any moment we still have opportunities to recognize, even when we are Palestinians, that there is a Jew lying in the ditch whom I can take in my arms and embrace.”  (David Cayley, Ivan Illich in Conversation, Toronto: Anansi Press, p. 242.)

As Illich would put it, there is a “sad historical progression in which God’s incarnation is turned topsy-turvy, inside out” (from David Cayley’s Rivers North of the Future, p. 29).  This corruption may be seen in our many efforts to serve, to control, to regulate, to manage and to turn our neighbors into categories or objects of our good intentions.  A simple illustration he gives is as follows: “In the early years of Christianity it was customary in a Christian household to have an extra mattress, a bit of candle and some dry bread in case the Lord Jesus, should knock at the door in the form of a stranger without a roof” (Cayley, Rivers North of the Future, p. 54.).  Over the centuries, hospitality was “improved upon.”  The work of each householder is transformed into the responsibility of our “serving institutions.”

If there is one alternative story which Ivan Illich cites more than others, it would, no doubt, be the one known as “the Good Samaritan Parable” in Luke 10. 

I have spent much of my adult life sifting through the human wisdom nuggets of truth in this story — AND BEING CONVERTED BY THIS WITNESS.  It is astonishing that in these few verses in Luke’s gospel, there are dozens upon dozens of insights into our institutions, our freedom, the incarnation story and the wider human reality — tragic and blessed.  I have written about this in other places — and will, no doubt, write more in the future about this upside down reality, this conspiracy, which is the core of Christianity (and that of many other great religious traditions).  Instead in this piece, I want to begin to share a few other alternative stories.  Today, there is the story from Wes Jackson, environmentalist and founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.

Alternative Story #1:

Wes Jackson shares a story of a visit E.F. Schumacher, author of the widely known work Small is Beautiful, made to his fledgling organization in Kansas in 1977.  Jackson says The Land Institute was “scarcely six months old and we were honored that Schumacher, the widely acclaimed author would visit and give a public lecture.”

“When Schumacher arrived, he did not dismiss this tiny organization that had recently experienced a devastating fire, destroying much of their early work. Instead, E. F. Schumacher listened patiently and insisted on being called ‘Fritz.’ On the evening of the lecture, the Salina Community Theater was filled with farmers, small business owners and the unemployed.”

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Wes Jackson, from Cool Science News, 2009

Fritz began by telling of a trip he had made during the 1930s with some friends in an automobile across America. He and his compatriots had stopped at a service station in some small Kansas town at the height of the Great Depression. Fritz engaged a local man at the station by asking, “How are things?” “Fine,” the local replied. “What is it you do?” asked Fritz. “Oh, I work on that farm over there,” he said pointing in the direction of the farm. “I used to own that farm but I had no money to pay the hired hand, so I paid him in land.  Eventually he owned all of my farm and now I work for him.”

That is a very sad story,” replied Fritz.” “Well, not so sad,” countered the hired hand. “You see, now my friend has no money either and so he is paying me back in land.” (Jackson, Wes, The Land Institute, December 1999, see info@landinstitute.org).

What are your thoughts about such alternative narratives?  Let’s have a conversation.  Let’s keep listening for other stories that conspire to teach new lessons than might transform our view of the world — and perhaps even change the way we see ourselves.

 

 

An Ecology of Hope

Truth on the Scaffold and An Ecology of Hope

I find it difficult to be hopeful these days — about many things — especially our nation’s commitment to the care of God’s creation.  With Scott Pruitt confirmed as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency we quite literally have a case of “the fox guarding the hen-house.”  What might we do and where might we find hope?

I spoke to this yesterday at the University of Evansville Founder’s Day event.  In this address (attached below) I cited the comments made by environmentalist, entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken.

Harken gave a surprisingly hope-filled address at the University of Portland in 2009. It was titled You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring.  When asked,” he says, “if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse… Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, re-imagine, and reconsider.

Like Paul Harken, I am hopeful, despite the climate change deniers, skeptics and so-called “luke warmers.”  Still optimism does not come easily.  It requires that we join our voices in full-throated demands that we dare not continue to destroy the gift of God’s creation.

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Trains loading at Gibson County Coal Mine

In my address at the university I noted that “There are more toxic super polluting power plants around Evansville, Indiana than around any other large or midsized city in the nation.  Millions of pounds of toxic air-pollution are produced within a thirty-mile radius each year.  Of the twenty-one plants identified as super polluters in the United States, four of them are in this circle. (There are five super polluting plants in Indiana and four of them are within fifty miles of the campus.)” 

See full address at: ue-founders-day-2-19-17.

Dr. Stephen Jay of IUPUI’s School of Public Health notes “In Indiana industrial greenhouse-gas emissions are second only to Texas domestically, and exceed those from Israel, Greece and 185 other countries.”Emissions from coal-burning plants are not good for our health and they bring rapidly increasing destruction for our planet. A growing number of studies demonstrate this. Such pollution is correlated with higher incidences of heart disease, pulmonary problems and certain cancers.

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Cayuga coal power plant in Vermillion County

Way back in 1979, in an article for Sojourners Magazine, I quoted the Spencer County coroner who seeing the increasing incidence of serious health problems and death said, “If the people knew the truth, they’d panic.” Long time local activist and photographer John Blair puts it simply, “we’re subsidizing the coal industry big time with our health.”

James Russell Lowell’s poem spoke of times when “Truth was on the scaffold.” Today is such a time – regarding our environment – and so many other issues of morality, human respect and basic governance.