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.

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.



Hands of the Strong: The Order of the Teaspoon

The Order of the Teaspoon

The 2015 Lenten Season begins.  “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return” are the words we hear as millions of Christians receive the ashes.  They are daubed on our foreheads or hands in the shape of a cross.  Many enter Lent making plans for a specific “Lenten discipline” (something like giving up deserts, increasing prayer time or fasting at least one day a week).  And, with it goes the prayer that we will do better with our Lenten discipline that we did with that New Year’s resolution made just 45 days ago and already broken.


As we enter Lent, on the first two days, we are met with not one but two major speeches by President Obama.  He speaks on terrorism or as he would have it “violent extremism.”  He says that “we are not at war with Islam; rather we are at war with those who have perverted Islam.”  I agree.  In the background, the chattering classes have been quick to argue that he should use the language of “radical Islam” to talk about the the barbaric, inhumane and extreme actions against innocents by ISIS or ISIL in the Middle East.

I don’t pretend to be a foreign policy expert.  Even so, I remember the mistakes our nation made following the tragedy of 9/11.   In my view we were led into an extended war in Iraq and Afghanistan that was fueled too much by revenge and too little by knowledge.  We allowed understandable but blind retribution propel the U.S.A. into war.  We now can see the terrible price of the last fifteen years in terms of human casualties and wasted treasure.  Some at the time warned of an inevitable “blow-back” that would result.

As we rushed to war I was a part of a minority who felt engaging in Iraq was misguided.  My opposition was in large measure related to the failure to follow the long established ethical guidelines for a just war (proportionality of response, clarity of purpose, authority, prospect for winning, protecting noncombatants).  I remember being invited to speak at a seminar in San Diego on Ash Wednesday in 2002.  Nervous, I was even more on pins and needles when I discovered that the room was full of active and retired military brass.  Still I proceeded to speak about the ethical realities when considering military engagement.

I need not to have worried.  The folks in the room were way ahead of me.  You see, I learned that those who face the reality of warfare are more thoughtful and careful about these matters.  They not only took to my rather tepid presentation on Just War Theory.  They appreciated it.  They also spoke in private conversations about the challenges of fighting our perceived enemies on multiple fronts.  They also spoke of the differences between Sunni and Shiite sects in Islam and of our sloppy language and analysis.  We as a nation were long on emotion and short on facts.

I am not certain we have learned much in the intervening decade.  I have more Muslim friends and have been privileged to know several Imams who encourage their followers in practices that are decidedly open and respectful of persons from other faiths.  Still, in too many ways the current talk of war with ISIS seems strangely like the situation we faced in 2001.

One of the reasons I won’t be using the words “radical Islam” is that many of the people who are encouraging us to do so wouldn’t think of insisting that we speak of “radical Judaism” or “radical Christianity.”  These folks, often encouraged by Christian leaders like Franklin Graham, paint Islam as entirely evil and see us in a great battle of civilizations.  These “Fanatical, Apocalyptic Christians” believe these are the end times.  They suggest that we are facing an inevitable encounter with the evils of Islam.  This is the mirror image of the view of “Fanatical, Apocalyptic Muslims” ready to establish a caliphate.

What do those of us who are not fanatics and do not accept such apocalyptic notions of the future have to bring?  I remember a phone call to an Imam, a man I didn’t know, back in 2002.  “I hear that the children of your mosque are living in fear as they walk to school.  Might we help?”  It was the beginning of a remarkable friendship.

During this Lent, I will give up easy, sloppy language and foolish images about those who differ in their faith.  More I will commit to giving time to study.  Military engagement seems to be inevitable in the Middle East.  I reluctantly understand this.  The Israeli novelist Amos Oz has written a fine essay “How to Cure a Fanatic” (Princeton University Press, 2004).  He writes: “Fanaticism is older than Islam, older than Christianity, older than Judaism, older than any state or any government, or any political system, older than any ideology or faith in the world… Who would have thought that the twentieth century would be immediately followed by the eleventh century?”  (pp. 41-42).  Amos Oz speaks of the value of imagination and humor in the face of such evil.  The volume ends with an interview in which he speaks of the Order of a Teaspoon (pp. 93ff).

Faced with a calamity, say a conflagration, Oz says there are three responses we may have: 1) run away; 2) Get angry, march in protest, blame others and seek to remove leaders from office; or, 3) grab a bucket of water and throw it on the fire.  And if you don’t have a bucket?  Bring a glass of water.  And if you don’t have a glass?  Bring a teaspoon. The fire is huge but we can bring what we can.

Our teaspoons may be the language we select, the prayers we pray, the letters we write, the hands we reach out to greet, the knowledge we seek.

This Lenten season, my discipline will be to bring all of the teaspoons and glasses and buckets I can to put out the flames.  Others may have to fight against evil in far away places; they may sacrifice their lives. 

Remember, “from dust you have come and to dust you shall return.”  It is how you use the spirit-infused life in the here-and-now that is of eternal consequence.  Begin where you are.  Bring your teaspoons full of good will, your imagination and your good humor.  We people of dust will need this and more…