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.

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.

Creation Care No Step in the Right Direction Too Small

Creation Care

No Step in the Right Direction is Too Small

Sunday last, I was asked to preach at St. Marks UMC in Bloomington, Indiana.  The topic assigned?  Christian responsibility regarding Creation Care.  What United

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Huntington Museum Gardens – St. Francis sculpture

Methodist Bishops have called “Environmental Holiness” has become of increasing interest and passion for me.  Perhaps this is especially the case as I am enjoying my years as a grandparent and considering the ways these children will experience the beauty and the destruction of the gift of the natural world.

Attached is the sermon that came for the day.  As any preacher knows — there is both more and less to say on any topic.  Sermons are shaped for particular occasions and specific audiences.  Still, I share this in the hope that no matter our particular perspective on the causes of the environmental changes that are now occurring, we can believe that we, each one of us has a responsibility to care for this “common home” that we share.

The sermon is here: ApologiesEaster – 4-23-17.

With thanks for the blessings of this good earth, I pray along with Christians everywhere — “Thy Kingdom come on earth.”

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Lake Louise – Canadian Rockies, 2016

An Advent of Sustainability

A Sustainable Advent: Integral Ecology

Dateline – Paris, November 30, 2015:  It is the first day of Advent and the leaders of nations around the world gather to seek ways to address the dilemmas created by Climate Change.   While there are some who believe that concern for the climate is antithetical to economic prosperity, there is a slow and steady awareness among business leaders that an alternative to this old either/or model can emerge. 

Interestingly this environmental summit begins on the first day of Advent.  Advent is a season filled with of stories of exile and a longing for home.  It is a time of waiting and watching.  Paris, touched so recently by terror, knows something about the challenges of exile and the welcoming of strangers

For me, the question of Climate Change is a leading edge of growing faith understanding.  This issue is a way I continue to “learn to learn.”  Sustainability is another way of speaking of the human responsibility to provide enduring care for God’s creation.  So… Advent is a time to wait, think anew, and reconsider my beliefs in the light of new lessons from scripture and science.

On my desk is a copy of the encyclical “Laudato Si” offered this spring by Pope Francis. The subtitle of this fine document is “Care for Our Common Home.”  Drawing on the witness of the pope’s namesake, St. Francis Assisi, we are encouraged to seek an “integral ecology.”  Care for the earth, it’s creatures and all human beings is one, indivisible task — it cannot be separated into parts.  Our commitment to care for the poor and stranger among us is related to our care for the earth; they are one focus. [Link to Ladato Si: Care for Our Common Home]

For years I have pondered the power and beauty of scriptures related to the the creation.  The call for an integral ecology is another way of saying the deepest spiritual themes of scripture and faith are interconnected.

I think of Genesis 1, where we are told that God sees everything that has been made and announces “behold it is very good.”  I consider passages like the 24th Psalm (“the earth is the Lord’s and all that is within it”) or the majesty of Psalm 104 or 148 — or Isaiah 40.  All of these passages are linked speaking to how we are to relate to our neighbor — especially the widow, orphan and stranger.  Our Christian scriptures culminate with Revelation 21 which speaks of the fulfillment of creation as a new heaven and a new earth.  

For me, the most haunting passages comes in the eighth chapter of Romans, one section of which reads: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in childbirth right up to the present time.”  It goes on, “Who hopes for what he already has?  But if we hope for what we do not have we wait patiently for it.”

Advent is a time of waiting… in hope… and then taking steps toward a more integrated way of living as people of faith.  This is a time to ask and answer some hard questions, no matter your stance on how to proceed.  [Link to: NY Times: Short Answers to Hard Questions about Climate Change]

Sadly, there are climate skeptics who deny both science and these compelling scriptural injunctions.   Many in the U.S. Congress are voting against the plans that will be offered by the current U.S. administration this week.  Sadly, these skeptics do not offer any alternative ideas.  They simply deny the science — and the scriptures.  Leaders in more than half of the states are suing the administration over this climate care agenda.  Okay, congress and governors, disagree if you will; however, offer some alternative.  Especially if you make claims about being persons of faith.  At least speak to the matter of stewardship and God’s desires for the care of the earth.

If one is an intelligent Christian, this season of Advent is a time to think carefully about God’s call for us to care for creation.  The science regarding the dangers of climate change is compelling.   Even if it were not, we persons of faith are to be good stewards of all we have been given.  If you are a person of faith and cannot support the Paris proposals, then speak clearly about alternatives as to how we should live with care and respect for creation.  Advent is the perfect season to think this through and then begin to offer alternatives in the new year.

If, like me, you are both a person of faith and trust the science, then we may have the greater task.  How can we help others understand?  How will we live?  What will we do to bring about change.

One encouraging sign comes from persons in the corporate world who are ready to help address the climate crises.  Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates will be announcing the creation of a multi-billion dollar clean energy fund, tomorrow, November 30th, at the opening of the Paris summit.  This announcement comes after and in addition to his announcement this summer that he was investing more than $2 billion in renewable energy that will encourage both “productivity and sustainability.” 

Early reports are that several others are joining Mr. Gates in the creation of the clean energy fund; however, many donors wish to remain anonymous because there is still a considerable lobby of persons who are climate change skeptics among corporate leaders. 

This skepticism and resistance is changing, and apparently quickly, Steve Schein, a former CEO and now professor in the business school at Southern Oregon University has recently written “A New Psychology for Sustainability Leadership.”  In it he suggests that more and more business executives are displaying an ecologically informed worldview — a worldview that for many of them has been nurtured since childhood.

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2015, Pines in Yellowwood Forest

Several years ago a friend took me on a hike that led to a grove of trees in Indiana’s Yellowwood State Forest.  It is a wonderful natural cathedral.  The white pine planted in the mid-to-late 1930s are now over 100 feet tall.   This grove is still a spiritual place for me.  It is an Advent place — my Advent wreath —  where I pray and think.

It is more than a place to think and pray.  You see, as lovely as these trees are they are dying too soon. 

Planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps, they are in an area that is often swampy and this forest lacks the necessary biodiversity of the wider forest and ground coverings all around.  Still, this grove of pines is far better than the land there previously; land that was eroding and abandoned due to the Great Depression that so scoured the region in the 1930s.  Something had to be done then… and it was.  These trees, now one of my favorite cathedrals, were planted over 80 years ago.  This was a temporary fix, perhaps only lasting 100 or 150 years.  It does, however, give space for further ways the natural world might, groaning as in childbirth, bring yet another season of beauty and hope.  Even if it is only a temporary fix, success at the Paris summit needs to be a part of our Advent prayers in 2015.

 

 

Bee Cause — To Bee or Not to Bee?

Bee Cause

“Slowly Learning?” — I scratch my head in wonderment.  Where did I read those words?   I have become aware that some slow learning is what I need at this juncture in life.  How about you?  This is a way we can slow down, be attentive to overlooked dimensions and gain knowledge we otherwise might miss?   Our culture is often better at fast-forgetting than slow learning.  To be labeled a “slow learner” in school is problematic  — it is a stigma, a barrier to future success.  In my search for abundant life, however, I have come to recognize this is a label to which I aspire.

New condos for the hives, just bee-cause.
New condos for the hives, just bee-cause.

I enrolled in a particularly challenging “slow-learning” curriculum this spring.  My teachers, all 14,000+ of them, arrived in late April.  They came in two small packages, 16x8x6 inch boxes with over 7,000 honey bees in each.   I prepared for their arrival by constructing two hives.  One hive was named “BEE WARE” and the other christened “BEE CAUSE.”  The bees arrived on April 21, the day before Earth Day.  At this point my learning curve went up in an almost perpendicular direction.  Can I learn from such a large faculty of over 7,000 in each hive?  I fret.  The weather is cold.  And, then I remember — slow learning may be my best option.

I kept bees before.  My first lessons in beekeeping came when I was in graduate school in Atlanta in the early 1970s.  It was a different time, before we heard of Africanized bees or the threat from a changing climate or the failure that results from an overuse of pesticides.  Having forgotten the little bit I once knew those many decades ago, I began again in the slow-learner class.  After attending the Indiana Bee School in March, I read and watched videos for beginning beekeepers.  It was clear much had changed.  Today bees are increasingly understood as critical, make that essential, to a healthy environment.

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Bee-ing attentive to the lessons at hand.

Upon retiring as a seminary administrator, a friend gave me Bill McKibben’s evocative book Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.   (I had mentioned to my friend that I might return to bee keeping and he kindly sent me the book.) 

Oil and Honey speaks of the challenge before our civilization as we face the relentless and greedy forces determined to ignore the damage done by our heavily carbon-based economy.  There is an interesting counterbalance between the two commodities.  As oil production soars, honey production is in jeopardy.  McKibben, “an unlikely activist” he says, because his primary identity was as a college professor and United Methodist Sunday School Teacher.  McKibben’s research left him little choice but to do something more dramatic.  He began to organize against the growing overuse and dangerous distribution of petroleum products, especially the development of schemes like the Keystone Pipeline.  There are other things much more important than making profits — one is providing for a sustainable environment.  This is a much more worthy goal.   (These other lessons require a slower leaning.  They can be learned by staying home, listening and learning from the world around.)

Sadly, too many in our nation’s political leadership don’t seem to desire to learn these lessons at all.  Are they moving too fast?  Or, are they blinded by their attachments to wealth and power that actually encourages ignorance and denial?  It is, frankly, amazing that in the face of the dramatic changes in our environment, congress votes over-and-over on bills that deny any environmental changes are occurring.  And, how many absurd television commercials does it require to tell us that BP really cares about the environment or that fracking is a safe way to provide for our insatiable carbon appetites?

McKibben notes there are many ways to address the challenges we face.  One way is through activism — he is the leader of the 350.0rg environmental coalition.  McKibben also notes other ways we can continue to learn and make a difference — by staying at home and doing small things like keeping bees.  He speaks of his friend Kirk, the bee-keeper.  Kirk becomes a counterbalance to McKibben’s admittedly contradictory rushing around from protest to protest in petroleum fueled airplanes.  He notes some need to protest and others need to give primary attention to care for the earth before we lose much more of our environmental carrying capacity.  One small example of this earth care is by beekeeping.

Upon reading Oil and Honey I sent an email to McKibben including this message: “I chuckled when I read of your friend telling you that you were not a ‘mild mannered Methodist Sunday school teacher.’  You have perhaps proven her correct — at least regarding the ‘mild mannered’ part of your self description.  However, you stand high on the list of unlikely activists in my life, among them many great Methodist Sunday school teachers!” 

I mentioned that he would be in my prayers and that I was taking up bee-keeping again on our small acreage in northwest Indiana.  McKibben wrote back this response: “Dear Rev. Amerson–your words made me very happy, and even more so the thought of you donning the beekeeper’s veil again after those decades! all best, Bill.”

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SLOWLY LEARNING — I remember now.  It comes from the last line in the poem “Thirst” by Mary Oliver. 

Thirst

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the hour
and the bell; grant me, in your mercy,
a little more time. Love for the earth
and love for you are having such a long
conversation in my heart. Who knows what
will finally happen or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things
away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which, with this thirst,
I am slowly learning.

— Mary Oliver, Thirst,
Beacon Press, Boston, 2006

This poem, this prayer, is my prayer during the spring of 2015.  “Love for the earth and love for you [God] is having a long conversation in my heart.”  So, I make this small act of learning from my bees… and perhaps they will give a little something extra in return.

We all can learn, we can move beyond intentional ignorance, we can agree that we can join in slowly learning a new way forward.

Grandsons Colin and Zack Murray get ready to help check on the hives.
Grandsons Colin and Zack Murray get ready to help check on the hives.