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.
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:
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.
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.
*Poem The Wanderer is from “The Absolute, Relatively Inaccessible” by Walter Wangerin, Jr., Eugene, Oregon, Cascade Books, 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.
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.
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.”
Berry 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.
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.
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).
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.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.
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.
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.)”
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.
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.
I am an early riser, one who enjoys watching the sun spread across the sky. This morning I couldn’t help but consider it a metaphor for the new light I believe is on the horizon regarding our environment. One reason for this is the reading I have been doing of late on this topic. Yesterday, it was my honor to preach at Wesley United Methodist Church adjacent to the campus of the University of Illinois. It was called a “teach in” as part of a national focus on faith and the environment. I believe a new day is dawning in terms of public awareness and constructive action.
It is not my intent to offer a reprise the sermon here. Instead I have attached a link to a copy for those who are interested. Here is my take away. First, we face enormous challenges as a society, as a global community. The damage has been severe, it will be difficult to reverse. NASA now suggests that climate change is our nation’s most serious security risk. Note the changes in the Arctic as our early warning system. (The Petermann glacier in Greenland is receding more than twenty miles a year!) Increasingly we are seeing a link with floods, wild fires and drought. We will have more than fifty million environmental refugees by the year 2020. This doubles the number of the estimates just twenty years ago.
I know the dangers of climate change are very real — difficult (some say impossible) to reverse. On the other hand, there are signs of hope, a dawning of awareness among nations, corporations and the general public. It is my sincere hope that the U.S. Congress will one day soon catch up with the scientific evidence. As the research is overwhelming clear, the Paris agreements are tentatively in process, and corporate and technological leaders are investing billions of dollars toward constructive change, it is our duty as citizens to press the case with Congress. The cost of solar and wind energy continue to drop in price.
It was a joy to be with a university community and see the commitments made by that congregation. I spoke with several students who indicated a deep appreciation for the sermon — but more importantly a personal commitment as future engineers, chemists, business leaders and farmers to a different way of thinking about our economy and ecology. Hooray for the gifts of great universities! (Look for a post soon challenging the larger church to rethink our investments in and valuing of campus ministry.)
I know that change will be difficult. Actually, it calls for a conversion — an ecological conversion, on the part of individuals, the culture and the economy. The witness of people of faith is essential as part of any solution. All people of faith – especially the local church… these communities will need to find voice on these matters. As Pope Francis demonstrated with the issuance of the encyclical Laudato Si, Christians can bring a perspective, insight and inspiration for the future — for the dawning just ahead.