Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Our Planet is Changing. We're On It—Together

Perspective on Change in the Earth System

Change is a natural component of Earth’s geological, biological, ecological, and processes.  The topography of the Earth has changed over many millions of years.  Mountains have gradually risen to stand where vast seas once flowed—and vice versa.  Likewise, the theory of evolution is all about biological change happening over very long timescales.  While it’s still a source of debates between scientists and theologians, I personally believe evolution offers the most credible explanation of how we’ve arrived at where we are today. Similarly, throughout Earth’s history, climate has fluctuated and ecosystems have changed in response.  Glaciers have slowly advanced and retreated, and so on. Given long enough, a lush forest can become a desert.

For many millions of years, the components of the ecological system stayed in balance.  Whatever resources creatures needed to take for their survival, the Earth was able to replenish naturally. After humans emerged, the rate of change accelerated.  In the creation narrative of Genesis, we learn that God created humankind in his image and gave us dominion over creation—Genesis 1:26-28.  This poetic description of the origin of humans seems consistent with what science has shown us.  While no one knows exactly how it happened, it is clear that there was a jump in the intellectual—and spiritual—capacity of humans, allowing us to develop capabilities setting us apart from all other creatures.  Among the most noteworthy is that we seem to have a built-in sense of morality—regardless of our specific faith or lack thereof.  We also have a unique sense of the world beyond ourselves and are capable of entering into relationships with others, and with God.  These traits are not intrinsically good or evil—we have free will to choose what to do with them.

The irony is the same free will that is required for a creature to reflect the image of its Creator can also be misused to destroy the very creation that the Creator so loves.

Human beings have changed the planet more than all other creatures combined.  Some of that change has been extremely good and beneficial, but some of it has been quite ugly and destructive.  From the very beginning, God placed limits on human beings and we struggled to live within them—Genesis 2:15-17.  Driven by our desire for progress and prosperity—and ultimately our desire to be in control— we often chose to ignore those limits with disastrous consequences—e.g., Genesis 3.  We’ve interpreted the words of Genesis 1:28 as justification for being allowed to take whatever resources we desire, with little or no regard for the impact on the creation itself—including other creatures and even other human beings.  In so doing, we’ve pushed way beyond the system’s natural ability to replenish itself.  We’ve consumed resources like water and oil exponentially faster than they can possibly be replenished, and pumped out waste products, which threaten the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Evidence mounts that the early 21st century is a critical point for Earth’s climate.  At some point our conspicuous consumption was bound to catch up to us, and we appear to be rapidly reaching that point.  To put it simply, the planet just can’t take anymore. 

Nowhere is climate change more evident than in polar regions like Greenland.  Jacobshavn Glacier in West Greenland is often cited as a dramatic example of the rate of climate change accelerating in recent years.  The lines show the extent of the glacier in different years.  Note how far inland the glacier has retreated since 1850; in particular, notice the rapid retreat just since 2001.  Image credit: Originally from NASA
How Should We Respond to Climate Change?

While most now accept that climate change is happening, many still claim that it is not a serious issue, especially relative to other issues we face as a society.  They point to past “natural” changes and argue that the human contribution is small relative to the forces of nature.  Some will even argue that government agencies like NASA have a vested interest in making us believe the worst about climate.  As someone who has spent nearly half his life training in science and “working for NASA”, I strongly disagree.  While not all data is perfect, it is not wise to defame NASA’s credibility over one or two claims that are later refuted because of bad data or new evidence.  This does not indicate an overall conspiracy to “cook the books” to make things look bad.  The fact is that NASA and other nations have gathered decades of satellite, aircraft, and ground-based data to support the claims made about the reality of climate change. The global view enabled by satellites over the past ~30-40 years has been particularly important in observing this change over time [1]. Establishing a clear human footprint on climate change is harder, but scientists are making progress in sorting out natural changes from those that can be attributed to human activity.  Scientists don’t make the claims they make lightly.  Anything published has to be “peer reviewed” meaning that the credibility of claims made has been scrutinized before it becomes public.

Others may admit climate change is happening but argue we “can’t be sure” human activity is to blame, so it would be irresponsible to risk our economic prosperity to change policies (such as limiting the amount of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere) when there is still “so much uncertainty” surrounding the issue.  While it’s true there are still some uncertainties in the exact causes of climate change, the overall conclusion they reach just doesn’t hold up to serious scientific scrutiny. 

The Earth’s climate is changing at rates unprecedented in Earth’s history.  The majority of scientists now agree that the change has a distinctive human footprint [2]. The question is no longer if climate change is happening, but rather what should be our response? 

By the time we are “absolutely certain” about whether the “smoking gun” of climate change points toward humans, it will likely be too late to do anything about it.

Should Christians Care About Climate Change

Some believe that creation care need not be a priority for followers of Christ—since our ultimate destination is heaven.  I too believe we are destined for heaven, but not yet—hopefully not for a while; I think what we do now in this life has just as much eternal significance as what we do in the life to come.

I believe that Scripture witnesses to this truth from beginning to end.  Both the Genesis text and scientific discovery concur that humans are unique from all other creatures God created.  We are the pinnacle of Creation and are meant to have a special role in caring for it.  The poetry of the Psalms and prose of the Prophets proclaim God’s glory revealed through Creation.  Several Prophets paint pictures of a day of the Lord, when God restores the Earth to its original glory.  We, God’s followers, are the ones God uses to do that restoration. In the Gospels, we see that Jesus was connected to Earth; he was after all the incarnation of God, and lived on Earth for 33 years.  He spent most of his time in the countryside of Palestine speaking to people familiar with working the Earth and evokes images of plants and animals frequently in his teaching. (Paul by contrast spent most of his time in urban areas.)  Revelation ends with images of a new heaven literally descending to Earth. 

The Earth matters to God and caring for it is a calling for God’s people.

Climate change is an issue that transcends any particular religious identity. It has the potential to impact every person living on planet Earth in some way; thus, we all have a stake in figuring out what to do about it. We can no longer ignore it and/or expect others (e.g., environmentalists, politicians, future generations) to resolve it.  Indeed, we are all on planet Earth together.  What impacts one of us impacts us all; what impacts the quality of life for our children’s children should concern us.

We’re On It—Together

Your planet is changing.  We’re on it. —NASA, Earth Right Now 
The NASA News Team came up with the slogan above for a recent campaign. It conveyed what is now pretty much accepted as fact: The planet is changing. The second part said: We’re on it, which I think is intended to have a double meaning.  On one hand, it conveys the message that we (the NASA News Team) are on top of the latest stories about climate change and will report them to the public.   On the other hand, it also implies that we (all of us) are all on planet Earth together, which most scientists agree, is changing at rates unprecedented in its history.

Interdisciplinary scientific study has led us to the point where we now understand climate change to be one of the great societal concerns of our time but science alone won’t lead us to a solution; I believe interdisciplinary faith dialogue will be required to solve the problem. 

Interestingly, one of the leaders in this dialogue has been Pope Francis.  He has been a revolutionary Pope in many ways since becoming leader of the Catholic Church in 2013, none the least of which is his overt concern for the environment.  Francis released the first Papal Encyclical entirely devoted to environmentalism, in which he encourages all people on the planet to make care for the environment an important part of living out their faith [3].  The Pope writes:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it —Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 23.

Be Like the Bereans… and the Wesleys

When Paul encountered the Berean Jews on his journey, he described them as having “more noble character” than those he had met in Thessalonica.  Why did he conclude this?   Because, rather than rejecting his message on face value, they were willing to go home and consider it.  He says they examined the Scripture for themselves to see if what Paul was saying was trueActs 17:11.

When considering a controversial issue like climate change, there are bound to be passionate defenses of "both sides". People of faith can honestly disagree over what the “correct” response is but we human beings have this rather nasty tendency to “demonize” those with whom we disagree.  We must avoid that temptation. 

When these kinds of issues arise, as they inevitably will, we need to be more like the Bereans. Our challenge is not to accept (or reject) the words in this essay on face value—i.e., to form an opinion just because the author “works for NASA”.  Study the issue and seek to discern the truth for yourself.

Our call is to be ready to give account for what we believe beyond simply quoting the “gospel” of our favorite news program or talk show host. We should consider information from a variety of perspectives and develop our own ability to discern what sources are credible and trustworthy. 

Remember that reason is a key component of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which is intended to help us discern our way through issues—along with Scripture, tradition, and experience.  Scripture is considered “first among equals” but you won’t find much about topics like greenhouse gas induced global warming in Biblical writings, the most recent of which is just under 2000 years old.  So we have to depend on other sources to draw our conclusions.  And that’s okay!  There is no call to “check our brain at the door” for followers of Jesus—and particularly for followers of the Wesleyan Way. Complex issues such as these require the union of knowledge and vital piety that Wesley longed to see.

Responding to the Call to Care for Creation

Pope Francis will visit the U.S. in a few weeks, including a visit to Washington D.C.  Among the other activities on his busy agenda while in DC is an address to a joint session of Congress.  It is likely he will lift up environmental concerns in his speech.

There is an opportunity to add your voice to this important conversation on climate change coming up at an event called, Coming Together inFaith Celebration [4], taking place Thursday September 24 at National Cathedral in Washington, DC. 

This gathering will bring together faith communities for inspirational messages, songs and poetry to inspire and connect faith and climate leaders and build momentum for action.

Our planet is changing.  We’re on it—together.

It almost seems like this slightly modified NASA slogan could have been God’s slogan from Day One.  From the very beginning, God has entrusted human beings with care of creation; God calls us to continue the work of creation.  Today, our planet faces a critical moment and God once again depends on us to live up to our calling. I pray that people of all nations, races, and faiths can figure out a way to work together for the common good of the world, and that by doing so, our society can figure out effective means to address climate change—one of the pivotal issues of our time.  The stakes are too high for us to get this wrong.  I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the ecological future of Earth lies in the balance. 

[1] The link is to a YouTube of a presentation called "The Satellite Record of Climate Observations, Not Beliefs". The speaker here is Compton “Jim” Tucker who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and is a well-known climate scientist, which makes a very strong case for the human footprint on climate change.
[2] The link is to the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). 
[3] The link to the Vatican website, where a pdf of the full Encyclical can be downloaded.  A helpful summary of Laudato Si’ can be found at be found at www.catholic.com/blog/jimmy-akin/pope-francis’s-environmental-encyclical-13-things-to-know-and-share.
[4] Visit the link to learn more about the event, including scheduled speakers, and to order tickets.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

A Dozen Years Ago: A Poem for Our Anniversary

Me being a writer, I often write Laurie something for our anniversaries, birthdays, and other Holidays. Usually I write prose, but occasionally I venture into something else.  This year, I wrote a poem.  Hardly a literary masterpiece but as I thought about where we are after a dozen years together (wow time flies when you are having fun!),  this was what arose from my heart...
July 5, 2003.  The happy couple beginning our life together...
Since many of you friends on Facebook have been part of some aspect of our journey together, I thought I would share this one:

A Dozen Years Ago
A poem written for our 12th anniversary

A dozen years ago the groom was all smiles,
As his bride and Best Friend walked down the aisle .
At Huntingtown church we had our ceremony,
Where three generations of Ward's have joined in matrimony. 
How many pastors for us to tie the knot you ask?
Six including the bride -- now that's quite a lot!
In the Company of Pastors: [Left to right.] Donna Renn, Sandy Taylor, Mark Derby, my bride Laurie,
Brian McLaren, and Carole Silbaugh.  Gosh!   I was the only layperson on the altar. :)
Our wedding party certainly filled Huntingtown's altar. 
Our family has formed us over the years.
Oh there have been challenges, but we have endured,
Though some of the wounds only eternity will cure.
We resemble our relatives and our children likewise,
The past is redeemed when seen through young lives.
New blessings born from a river of tears.

Good, bad, and ugly -- all part of our story.
Sometimes Divine Presence can be hard to trust.
Joy and sorrow, they've been known to commingle.
Maybe most when we're sad, our hearts feel the tingle.
Even deep pain, if we let it, reminds us:
Every moment we live through laced with God's glory.

A dozen years ago I couldn't imagine my life today.
Through all of its rigors, my vows remain the same,
And my love for you has become deeply engrained.
Two becoming one, made stronger by the Third strand.
Adventuring in marriage, but safe in God's hands,
Becoming fully ourselves while following the Way.

How we look now.  Still smiling 12 years later.  
(Taken at a friend's wedding in June.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Liturgy for Living

Our church is doing a sermon series called Why Worship .  In previous weeks, we covered sacraments and proclamation/prophecy; last week, we looked at liturgy, which means the work of the people—not the work the pastor.  We were reminded that worship requires the participation of the whole community. There is an order of worship we follow.  Each time we gather together, we do things in a certain sequence intended to help lead us into God’s Presence—and then back out into the world carrying that Presence with us. These rituals are meant to bond us to meaning.  If we aren’t “getting anything out of” certain parts of the worship service, we may need to remind ourselves why we do what we do.  

In her message, the pastor reminded us there are two types of time: chronos and kairos.  Chronos is “our time”, the kind of time we keep on our watches and schedule-apps; kairos, on the other hand, is “God’s time”, or eternal time.  It is the "right" or "opportune" moment for us to encounter God. 

We live our days in chronos time but as people created in God’s image, we are created to seek and experience kairos moments. 

When we gather to worship as a community, we intentionally choose to give God some of our chronos, which we can control, in hopes of experiencing kairos, which we cannot.   

The liturgy we use in our worship services provide means that create space for those kairos moments to happen.  They are regular routines that followers of God have used for centuries to point themselves toward the Divine, sort of analogous to how a trellis helps to guide the growth of a tender plant.

The pastor also briefly touched on how we need order in our own personal lives. Although it wasn’t her focus, that was the part that resonated with me the most this week.  I have found myself in recent days feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the busyness of my life.  (How many can relate?) We did a round of spring-cleaning in our house recently.  We literally restored some order in our home—which felt really good after it was done!  But what I am seeking goes deeper than just cleaning up my physical home—I need to reorder my spiritual home.

I often say I need to find balance.  The reasoning goes that if I can just get the right ratio of activities, then I can do it all.  Seeking balance isn’t bad per se; the problem is that it tends to be self-focused.  I am trying to manage all the various “hats” I must where: spouse, parent, employee, church member, etc., and do them all well, so that life is easier and more convenient for me.  Also, when we seek balance, the sectors of life tend to get compartmentalized.  Spiritual life becomes just one of the compartments—when it should encompass all of the others.  Even if I manage to balance all the activities, where does that leave me?  Tired most likely!  But am I really any more certain about where I am headed?  Probably not.

I am fairly convinced that writing and storytelling are part of my calling; I've known that for a while.  In some ways, I already do these things.  I am a writer, editor, and “storyteller” for NASA.  Likewise, I’ve written many spiritual essays similar to the one you are reading right now over the past decade or so, and published them online and/or in print. I’ve also tried my hand in more recent years at creative nonfiction writing, taking several online courses, and producing some "really good first drafts".  All of these are partial expressions of who I am, but none of them are the complete picture.  I am fairly certain there is “more” I am meant to do, but struggling to discover it—and do it.

I think the “next step” involves a grand synthesis bringing together the writing I have done to date: a spiritual memoir perhaps?  A fuzzy vision emerges of what might be, but it quickly vanishes in the fog of uncertainty that seems to surround my life. Besides, having the time and energy to seriously pursue writing just doesn’t seem practical at this stage of my life.  I get discouraged and dismiss it as impossible.

I think the spiritual progress that I seek toward living more fully into my calling requires more than balance.   To get back on track toward the “bigger picture” that God sees for me, I need a firm sense of direction—I need order.

I was reminded this week of a time-honored spiritual practice that can help me if I would choose to pursue it.  It’s called a rule of life[1].  In light of our discussion of the role liturgy in worship, we might think of this practice as liturgy for living.  For centuries, these “rules” provided frameworks (like the trellis) that have helped followers of Jesus more intentionally pursue personal rhythms and guidelines that draw them closer to God and one another[2].  Developing a personal rule requires taking an honest inventory of who we are and what we really desire in life and then coming up with a rule (or if you prefer, a rhythm) that works for us. 

For example, if I really want to move forward as a writer, it likely won’t “just happen”; I will need to make a plan.  That is, I need to be clear about my goal, and then decide what specific and intentional actions I will take in the next month, year, etc., to move toward that goal.  For some reason, I resist making such plans like the plague. Why?  It’s a complicated answer but I think it’s because once I make a plan it has the potential of failing, and I hate failure so much that I resist even starting.  I figure I will just wait for the memoir to “just happen” and if it doesn’t it must not have been “meant to be”.

But I have come to believe that “meant to be” is a joint endeavor between us and God.  Until I am willing to do my part, my dream is likely to remain elusive—and I am likely to remain frustrated.

The liturgy that shapes your life will be different from mine.  It will be as unique as the individual God has created you to be, but as Christ followers there will be common themes that weave together, harmonies that join to make beautiful music. God’s hopeful and compelling vision of the Kingdom of God will begin to (re)order our hearts (Proverbs 4:23) and provide the impetus we need to overcome our human tendency toward self-centeredness and motivate us to take action toward the noble pursuit of loving God and loving our neighbors as we work together toward the common good of creation. 

[1] Two excellent resources are the section on “Rule of Life” in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us, by Adele Calhoun, pp. 35–39, and “A Well Ordered Heart,” Chapter 12 of The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People, by John Ortberg.  Ortberg discusses the difference between balance and order in more detail.
[2] An example of an ancient rule of life still in use today is the Rule of St. Benedict.

Speaking With a Prophetic Voice

At my church during May we have been considering:  Why Worship?  Thus far, we have covered sacraments and proclamation; next week is liturgy.  When we considered proclamation, we looked at Jeremiah's call (Jeremiah 1:4-9) and our call as Christ followers to have a prophetic voice.   Our task, in the words of Walter Bruggeman is not to ask whether an alternative is possible or viable—but rather to ask if is it is imaginable. Our pastor challenged us to be prophets wherever we find ourselves. Our call is to imagine a better world, to confront the status quo wherever there is injustice, and to work toward making our hopeful vision (i.e., God’s vision) a reality.

Surely the voice of Martin Luther King is that of a modern prophet.  King's words, first preached over half a century ago, often seem like they could just as easily be commentary on today's world.  Some of the specific issues may have changed since the early 1960s, but the core human issues King confronted in his writing and speaking remain essentially the same.

In one of his sermons, King speaks of the need to have both a tough mind and a tender heart as a follower of Christ.  Certainly, any who would seek to speak with a prophetic voice must strike that delicate balance. 

On one hand, prophets have to possess a tough (or disciplined) mind.  They must have strong conviction—and thick skin.  A prophet is often called to challenge the status quo in his/her time, and that's never an easy road to walk.  It's much easier to acquiesce and go with the flow.  Because he/she typically challenges people to move from what is familiar and comfortable to them, the prophetic voice is often not a popular one.  The most vehement opposition typically comes from those who have the most to lose if things change.  By their words and actions these persons make it clear: We are comfortable where we are, thank you very much; we don't care much for your so-called vision.  If a prophet doesn't have a tough mind; if he/she isn't possessed by a compelling vision of what God longs to see that drives all that they say and do, they will likely lose heart and give up hope. 

Likewise, a prophet also needs to have a tender (or disciplined) heart—one that is able to hear the still small voice of God even in the midst of hardship and suffering. Prophets often speak words of hope amidst circumstances that seem hopeless. No, the hopeful vision will not come to pass immediately; it will not come without effort—without blood, sweat, tears, sometimes even death—but "one day", proclaims the steadfast prophetic voice, it will come. 

Jeremiah is a good biblical example of the balance the prophet must strike between tough mind and tender heart.  When God calls Jeremiah as a young man (perhaps only a child) to go and deliver ominous warnings to the people of Judah, he resolves himself, despite his youth, to obey to the best of his ability.   Jeremiah surely felt inadequate to the task before him but God reassured him:  you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command.  In other words: I am going with you.  My voice will come out of your mouth.
The message God delivers through Jeremiah is not pleasant.  Jerusalem is about to be overrun by the Babylonian Empire and the temple will be destroyed.  Many will die; the lucky ones will be taken off into exile.  Judah is about to be displaced from everything that is familiar to them.  No wonder Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet. 

God’s message is a hard one for Jeremiah to deliver, but, even in the face of brutal opposition, he does not waver.  Jeremiah has both a tough mind and a tender heart

The leaders did not heed Jeremiah's tough words.  One might therefore expect him to gloat when disaster befalls Jerusalem.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Jerusalem is Jeremiah's home too.  Despite being ignored and despised by the very people he tried to warn, they are still his people, and when they hurt he hurts.  Jeremiah weeps with them; he feels compassion for them—and so does God. 

Through Jeremiah, God speaks some of the most hopeful words in all of scripture.  He reassures the people that though they are in exile far from home, God is still with them—and will never leave them.  In the midst of seemingly hopeless circumstances, Jeremiah promises the people a future with hopeJeremiah 29:11.  For the time being, they must settle down in Babylon and make a life for themselves in exile—but "one day" a remnant will return.  As a sign of his faith in that future—and in the God who will bring it to pass—Jeremiah does something most unusual.  Even as the Babylonian siege ramps advance on Jerusalem, Jeremiah purchases a field the city—Jeremiah 32

Such an act would take both a tough mind, to go through with a real estate deal as an invading army advances upon the city, and a tender heart, to follow through and do what God asks even though it seems like sheer folly.

I don't know about you but most days my voice doesn't seem very prophetic. Many days, it is all I can do to get my kids to listen to me, much less speak challenging words that confront injustice in the world and offer hope for the future.  It's hard to imagine a better future when just getting through the "to do" list each day seems to take every bit of energy I have.  I feel very unfocused most of the time; pulled in many directions, I do not speak or act decisively.  I feel like most days I fear my voice sounds more pathetic than it does prophetic

Proverbs 29:18 says that without vision the people perish, and many days I feel like that describes my life

I am not sure what prevents me from seeing more clearly the future that God wants for me, my family, my church, or my world. I suspect we each have our own unique “vision impediments”, and we have to discern them for ourselves and take action to eliminate them.

Until a compelling vision of the future fills our sails, we risk continuing to drift in no particular direction, easily swayed by the ever-changing winds of this world, trying to escape the doldrums of double-minded indecisiveness.

Prophets likes Martin Luther King and Jeremiah (and also Jesus[1]) show us the value of having a clear vision of the future God desires to focus our lives and motivate us to take decisive action. I for one need to be reminded of these examples right now.  They challenge me to get off the snide and seek to discern the “next step” toward becoming the person God created me to be—and then step out in faith and take it…  Lord let it be so for me—and for all of us.

[1] I believe Jesus’ commitment to pursue God’s vision (which the Gospel writers call the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven) was the impetus for all he said and did—and ultimately the reason he was willing to face death on the cross.