A People Comforted or Comfortable?

I am a fan of the writings of Walter Brueggemann. He is an Old Testament Professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ. Currently I am enjoying his recent book, A Gospel of Hope (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2018), a compilation of previous writings gathered around specific themes, like ’Abundance and Generosity,’ ‘Alternative Worlds,’ ‘Anxiety and Freedom,’ ‘God’s Fidelity and Ours.’ Although not expressly a book about eco-reformation, it is very stimulating reading from such a perspective.

 
Consider these words:
Imagine that a small community set down in the midst of the empire and all of its aggressive militarism is a small community that refuses to participate in the anxiety of the world, because it imitates birds and lilies in the sure confidence that the Father in heaven knows our needs and supplies them. (p.24)

 
Or consider this passage about the place of Jesus in the world:
People wondered about Jesus. They sent and asked if he was the one who is to come, the one to be in charge. He refused a direct answer. He said, everywhere I go, true, best creation appears. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, the poor have their debts canceled. Where there is a true lord, there is a true world. (p.51)

 
I want to spend some time with this next thought. Brueggemann makes a distinction between our being comfortable and our being comforted. Consider what he says:
The gospel is always against our being comfortable, in order to be comforted in our dis-ease. I invite you to think about this terrible distinction between being comfortable and being comforted, between our capacity to cope and our willingness to be held and embraced, to be nursed and cared for and suckled by this God who now speaks and holds us amidst our dark night of ache, holding our bodies that tremble with the tears of fatigue and despair.

 
Brueggemann goes on to describe a “mothering God”- “who says ‘comfort’ only in the midst of exile.” ( p. 43)

 
I am wondering why our church, and most of American and Canadian society, is so slow to acknowledge climate change, so slow to make any substantive decisions for change. Could it be we are too comfortable?

 
First, we are comfortable as we are, where we are. And we can’t imagine any need to change. Indeed, we resist change, denying responsibility; defending against the tide of homeless refugee people, fleeing hostility, famine, injustice, and environmental catastrophe. We’re not hungry enough.

 
Secondly, we’re comfortable in our capacity to cope; we are confident that our science, and technology, and global positions of social and economic power will solve our problems and maintain our comfort.

 
But we need not act too quickly. After all, scientists say we have twelve years! We’re content to talk about two degrees of global warming, disbelieving that such a small difference can affect the entire planet. In the meantime, for the sake of immediate profit, we’ll roll-back limitations on greenhouse emissions, restore burning goal reserves, build additional pipelines for the transportation of oil and gas, and continue to fly all around the world, dumping toxic emissions into the air. What we can’t see can’t hurt us. We’re comfortable.

 
Climate change? Getting warmer? Turn up the AC a couple degrees. Going to be a gold, stormy winter? Turn up the furnace a couple of degrees. Or, better yet, vacation in someplace warm, with all-you-can-eat buffets, luxurious, well fertilized and irrigated golf courses, and bright lights and blaring sound day and night.

 
I had hoped we would respond more sanely and responsibly. But I do not believe our technology – or our will – will lower carbon dioxide levels, reduce the rate of global warming, reduce the pollution of plastics or restore lost species of flora and fauna. We will not restore the ice caps. We will not turn deserts into gardens.

 
And someday we will not be comfortable. No matter how hard we try.

 
We have not yet experienced exile.

 
I grew up enjoying the fantasy of science fiction. I imagined lives of leisure, exploration and adventure. One day we would conquer the stars!

 
Now, I wonder whether a four-billion-year-old planet even requires the existence of this animal species we call humankind.

 
It’s nearly Christmas. And in our Canadian churches in our Canadian cities people are going about preparing for Christmas like we have always done.

 
Except we have neighbors to the northwest who have experienced horrific wildfires. Where is the smell of fir when it is lost to the stench of wet ash? What does “coming home for the holidays” mean when home is rubble and the table cannot be found among the debris?

 
Fire to the northwest. Tornadoes in mid-central. Hurricanes in the southeast. Snowstorms in the northeast.

 
Are we so comfortable in the mid-west, the prairie provinces? The potato crop is down in every Canadian province. Utility prices are going up again. Families are told to expect to spend $411 more for food next year. And, would you believe, greenhouses are shifting from vegetables to cannabis?

 
Meanwhile thousands trudge north, seeking to escape, seeking to find refuge, only to be met with a wall and tear gas. Parents who seek refuge, safety, a new beginning with some semblance of security, are separated from their children.

 
Who will suckle their children? Who will suckle us?

 
Where are the prophets among us who can point like John and say, “See! Behold the one who comes, the Comforter of the world”? Where are the Samaritans who bind up the broken and see to their wounds, their empty bellies, their tear-stained cheeks?

 
I want to see a creche this year wherein a mother and father sit exposed on a burned out hill, or under a piece of canvas on a cactus-studded bit of sand… And I want to see them approached by some visitors who bring gifts: a box of disposable diapers, a jug of clean water, a pail of hot soup, and a pile of blankets. These visitors have come because Light led them.

 
Is that possible?

 
I want to know that in church basements people are opening the scriptures to read the words, “Comfort, comfort my people…” and know that these words are meant for them. And for their neighbors.

 
I want our seminary students and professors and church leaders – with collars or without – to be a bit uncomfortable as they haul way the burned and broken in the northwest – as they repair the walls and rebuild the dikes in the southeast – as they shovel out their neighbors in the northeast and see that they have food and light and medicine and companionship.

 

I want to see people assisting at the refugee camps, serving meals at the homeless shelters, rocking children at the shelters for domestic abuse. I want people to know that the One who comes this Christmas comes as the Comforter to all those who are no longer comfortable.

 
Have you noticed that there are no stories like this? Or very few. Certainly not enough.

 

Not enough.

 
This Christmas, let the heavens ring with songs of praise and hope.

 
We have been comforted. We sing with the birds and the lilies, as Brueggemann reminds us, as Jesus promised us.

 
And we can comfort others. Indeed, in the love of the Father and the Mother, we can even choose to be a bit uncomfortable. Because this is life… this is love. This is hope.

 

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Lent with an Ecological Emphasis

This is another in a series of blogs challenging churches to prepare now for Lent, 2019. Let the Lenten season to come be a call to repentance from an ecological perspective, a call to restorative justice in the care of the earth.

Imagine Lent asking for a deep ecological repentance… beginning with renouncing professional sports and tourism! What do you think would be the push-back?

Peter Denton, a Winnipeg author and activist, and chairman of the policy committee of Manitoba’s Green Action Centre, proposed this very thing in an article November 20 in the Winnipeg Free Press. (See https://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/analysis/climate-change-arena-leaves-no-real-winners-500893251.html )

He begins by emphasizing what we know but do not like to hear… time is short. The world is warming rapidly. The proposed window for effective change is only twelve years! Society must change its lifestyle, surrendering some aspects life near and dear to us that are contributing enormously to destruction by carbon.

Consider hockey. 31 NHL teams with 82 regular season games. Consider all the travel. Should we shorten the season? Play multiple games before traveling to the next city? And what about teams with homes in semi-tropical climates, those states with recent wildfires? Why are these teams in such sites? It’s not sport; it’s money.

Then, Denton continues, add in NBA and NFL. (We could add CFL.) Be sure to count not only the travel but all the carbon burned by fans attending the games. Don’t stop there. What about college and university sports? And high school sports?

And then there’s golf. Whoa!

You can imagine the groaning, the outright indignation, from people in the pews if a pastor brought these thoughts forward from the pulpit. We want the comfortable pew… and the seat on the fifty yard line. But confession and repentance hurt. Something in life has to die.

But such points will not likely be made.
But Denton is not done. He goes on to challenge what has been called “green tourism.” He chides the business people, only the entrepreneurs make any green; local residents “clean up the mess.”

Tourists could never live through the year like they do on holidays. Resorts power up the lights and air conditioning; water the lawns and golf courses; spread lavish buffets… fulfilling our dreams.

And that’s the problem, according to Denton. Our dreams cannot be sustained by reality.

Coming back to the consideration of sport, Denton argues, While we cheer and jeer, constructing beer snakes instead of composters, it doesn’t matter which team wins the game. If nothing changes, we will all lose, together, and soon.

Denton calls for leaders to lead. Maybe that includes our spiritual leaders as well. Lead… from death to life. Speak for the conscience of Earth and her creatures. Call for a return to stewardship of the planet.

Read Denton’s article. Consider what you will do and say this Lenten season.

There’s an ad for a certain financial institution that asks, “What’s in your wallet?” And the intent is to invite the viewer to change investing and spending practices. In a similar way…. “What’s in your sermon?” Are you calling your people to repentance that really does mean life or death?

Do you have a promise that God is doing something to make a new creation?

Let’s hear what you have to say as we approach the darkest of Fridays… and a new beginning.

The Nature of a Blog about Nature and Faith

I’m realizing – and I am publicly proposing – that a blog such as this is less a completed work and more a sketchpad.

 

A blog such as this is not a systematic argument but rather, a story, unfinished. Becoming. Evolving. This is less about tying up all the loose ends into a weaving of completed thought and art, as it is fiddling with hanging threads, trying to keep from unraveling.

 

These ideas are not meant to do your thinking for you. But these words initiate an idea, stimulating your thinking as readers. As I write, I hand something over to you saying, “Here’s what I think…. Now what do you think?”

 

Week after week, I consider what I have been reading and what I have been observing in the news and in the world, and I offer my words, saying, “Here is what I am considering… What will you do with it?… What is your response?… What behavior does this evoke?”

 

In these eight or nine months, one of my biggest disappointments is not having a response – not knowing what happens next – on your end. I much prefer the dialog of the classroom or the coffee table than the website posting.

 

Each week I wonder about what to write. I ask myself, “What next?” without benefit of the “what next” that comes from you readers.

 

Nevertheless, perhaps a blog is an electronic version of a message in a bottle. Maybe someone will find a few lines and wonder….

 

Next week I return to the challenge of preparing for Lent from an ecological perspective, considering more about what obstacles get in the way of faith taking action….

Advent – Preparing for the Coming of Christ Without a Three-Tiered Universe

So, I have issued a challenge – twice – to begin now to prepare for Lent. But, oh, yes, Advent is even closer than Lent!

 

How do we prepare for the coming of Christ? How do we speak of Christ’s coming – or coming again – without suggesting a three-tiered universe?

 

Let’s see, we usually say something like, Christ is coming to Earth from beyond the heavens (we know well enough that this is a greater distance than from the sky), from sitting at the right hand of God in Heaven.

 

How does the carol go? “From Heaven above to Earth I come?”

 

The universe of Eco-Reformation, with all its understanding of space-time and ever- expanding galaxies, has no confidence in a three-tiered universe. Yet that is still the language we use.

 

If all creation is interconnected, if all creation is one, does Christ come by emerging from creation – stepping out rather than coming to?

 

Christmas is the celebration of incarnation. So, we describe how the baby comes to Bethlehem. And we speak of how the Christ is born in our hearts.

 

In creation, we say God brings forth Life. Now, in the unity of creation it seems that in Advent, Life brings forth God!

 

Hmmm. Interesting musings to keep us warm on chilly winter nights. These are puzzles that might keep us awake at night, gazing at the stars…. But what difference does this make? You might say, “I’m not so interested in these theological puzzles… What does this mean in my context?”

 

Context! That’s it! Incarnation is all about God becoming part of our creation – part of our context – in flesh – in time – in space! But context is everything!

 

Christ comes! Christ is a part of Life in the community of fishermen then and fishermen now. In the community of miners. In the community of farmers. In the community of all those tens of thousands rebuilding after wildfires and wild storms. In the community of refugees fleeing the ravages of war, brutality, starvation and environmental disaster.

 

Christ comes in the context of Israel – but also the context of the Amazon. And Antarctica!

 

The Messiah comes, so the story goes, not to palaces and the halls of power, or to boardrooms or staterooms of the empire. The Messiah comes to the poor, to shepherds and peasants, to those who have no voice, to those who would not be believed if they did.

 

Advent is about preparing for the coming of Christ. The preparation of Advent is less about getting right thinking as it is about doing something to make room for Christ to appear.

 

So, from an ecological perspective, how do we make room for Christ in an ever-expanding desert? Or in a dwindling forest? Or amid miles of floating plastic on the sea?

 

We might want to say Christ does not belong there. But Advent says the opposite. Christ does belong there. Christ is coming – whatever that means!

 

So, cleaning up a landfill is part of making room for the baby. Purifying the river… Providing sustainable food…. Seeing to the just distribution of food is all part of preparing for the great banquet when the Christ comes.

 

This Advent I invite you – no, I challenge you – to speak of preparation with the language of the environment. Speak of Christ coming with the language of the oneness of God and of creation and the unity of all things.

 

God and creation are one. Incarnation is about the restoration of God and creation in our context!

 

In Advent, we are Christ’s Body and Presence in this particular context! What are you going to do about that? What is Christ doing in this time and place? In this space-time?

A Second Challenge to Make Lent an Eco-Reformation Event

I am going to issue again a challenge to make Lent, 2019 an experience of examination and repentance with an environmental focus or context.

 

I wrote some weeks ago about preparing now for Lent, because there is much to Prepare, Partner, and Plan. I would add that there needs to be much Prayer and some expectation of serious Push-Back.

 

When I say ‘Prayer’ I am hoping that all congregational mission planning is rooted in prayer. But since this approach to an Eco-Reformation perspective is likely a new shape to Lent, leaders need to pray less for God to bless their intentions and more that God would reveal divine intentions, and inspire the will to be truly transformed. This prayer involves deep listening – to the whisper of God; the cries of Earth and her creatures; and the desperation for justice and healing at many levels.

 

If there is going to be repentance, if there is going to be sustainable change, this will come at great cost. More than a carbon tax. More than higher prices for oil and gasoline. The planet in peril requires repentance. And the old Adam will not go quietly. Maybe a way of life will even have to die.

 

I issue this challenge, not so much to get our theological thinking right, but to truly reflect on individual, corporate, social and political sin, and the need for redemption. This is very different from the “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned” plea for more patience, less anger and a more generous heart. I dismay every year at the practice of “giving something up for Lent” and having it be coffee, chocolate, or Netflix. This challenge calls that we be moved to a deeper repentance; that there be deep transformation; that we move from talking about sin and new life to action – truly living new life.

 

Let me ask you, “Does your faith work?” I don’t mean, “does it work for you….does it give you comfort…does it give meaning, inspiration, direction or hope?” I mean, “does your faith work?” Does your faith move from your head to your hands, from your heart to your wallet? Does your faith do anything? Does your faith make a difference?

 

How does scripture put it? “Faith without works is dead!” (James 2)

 

Environmentally speaking, there has been lots of good new thinking about faith and the environment. Many, many Lenten weeks have passed during the creative reflection of the last sixty years. Oh, yes, Eco-Reformation is not a new perspective; not a new mission responsibility. It’s just new to many, if not most, in our pews.

 

So, what is holding us back? Why can’t we move beyond right thinking and right believing to right acting? How can our faith become “active in love” for the care of the planet?

 

Probably because this would require real change!

 

We know the facts. Even as many people still deny them. We are still losing entire species of creatures. The ice pack is still melting. The temperatures are still rising. The ozone layer is still being damaged, allowing more ultraviolet radiation to reach the earth, affecting the reproduction of phytoplankton, reducing food sources from the bottom, clear up the food chain.

 

Human beings are still pumping oil, burning coal, clearing forests, building highways and high density housing on top of prime farmland.

 

There have been signs of change but not enough change. There has been no real repentance. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19)

 

Some weeks ago, I issued the challenge to begin now to prepare for Lent. There is much to learn; there is much to plan; there are partnerships to develop to make things happen. But there also needs to be some attention on experiencing what it is that is holding us back. What are the obstacles to faith – especially faith becoming action?

 

There will be more on this question in this space in weeks to come. But first, next week, we realize that before Lent, we need to get through Advent!

 

The Prosperity Gospel and Eco-Reformation

I have been reading Everything Happens for a Reason: and Other Lies I have Loved, by Kate Bowler. See an earlier blog. I have finished the book, but I will not spoil the ending.
Bowler, a Canadian Mennonite, graduate of Yale, assistant professor at Duke, has studied the Prosperity Gospel. She has lived much of it. And she struggles with its teachings and principles when, as blessed as she had been – education, husband – child – she now endures stage 4 cancer. Why? If this has happened for a reason….

 
This is not the place for a thorough critique of the Prosperity Gospel. But I wonder if “spiritual but not religious” in America are caught up in the values and rhetoric of this approach to faith and Christianity. Caught up in the American dream.

 
Any description of Lutheranism in a paragraph would certainly do a disservice to the faith, history, tradition and ministry. Similarly, what follows is an incomplete analysis but one person’s perspective on the teaching and practice of the Prosperity Gospel. The Prosperity Gospel asserts that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, God’s approval. One only need claim God’s promises by faith in order to realize the blessing of wealth and well-being. Misfortune, in contrast, is a sign of God’s disapproval. If one suffers illness or misfortune, has God made a judgement; is this a result of overt sin, a punishment? Or has the individual failed to “name it and claim it”? That is; is this condition brought about by one’s own weakness, one’s lack of faith? The basic principle, the core, is that God desires to bless us with health and well-being.

 

 

Stop there. Would Lutherans disagree? Does God intend an abundance of life? Does God promise a land of milk and honey, a restoration of a broken world, a broken universe, a return to Paradise? Hmmmm.

 

Now, consider the American dream. Anyone can be what they wish to be. Even President of the United States! Believe it, work hard at it, and you can attain your dreams. God has blessed this country to be more than it was – perhaps more than any other. America is great! Let’s make it great again!

 

There’s that assertion of determination – hard work – wise investment – time – energy- dollars – and we can be more than we ever were! Nothing is impossible to those who believe!

Americans – American Christians – are being asked to celebrate the American “can-do” spirit. We are a land – a people – of unlimited opportunity. With the right attitude – with the right determination – with the right investment of time and energy and skill – we can indeed determine life’s outcome!

Unlimited potential. Heaven on Earth. Paradise.

Hmmm.

The Prosperity Gospel appeals to those who desire to make sense of pain, suffering, and divine purpose and intervention. Who would not?

But is this perhaps an escape? Are there other consequences of this “faith” that bear risks to the poor, the infirm, the disadvantaged, the marginalized – or even ourselves on a bad day?

What do we do with other aspects of Christian faith? What do we do with the reality of evil? With the call to service, even sacrifice, even martyrdom? What happens to humility, rather than arrogance; to compassion, rather than dominance; to self-sacrifice, rather than self-protection?

If we are a people destined by God to be blessed…. But there are these immigrants, these refugees, these poor people needing welfare because they have experienced tragedy (?), injustice, prejudice… they seem to be a threat to the fulfillment of the blessing. Indeed, they seem to be a sign of God’s displeasure, so they must become our displeasure! Really?

If another country also is experiencing rising wealth and self-determination, perhaps we should raise walls and raise tariffs and bar immigration because they will reduce our profits, take our jobs, and compete for our resources! Certainly, God cannot bless more than one chosen people!

Or… perhaps there is another gospel, revealed in scripture, embodied in Christ, and enabling a way of life for a different faith in a believing people.

God forbid that the Christian faith, the faith of a suffering and sacrificial God, the faith of a God who makes promises to all people, in all lands, in every generation… God forgive that this faith be labelled un-American!

This faith, the faith of Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, Mary and Joseph, is a faith that seeks to remove walls; redeem (set free) the lost and enslaved; forgive debts; reconcile differences; respect those called “other.”

What are the implications of such a faith for the care of this planet Earth; where life is interconnected and valuable simply because it is; where the profits belong to all, not merely a few, and self-determination is a response to grace, unlimited by the prejudices of others? Where only God has unlimited potential. Where limited people live with limited resources in a limited time… and do so with a love that is unlimited, unreserved, and “as it was in the beginning and shall be to the ends of time”!

Maybe we Americans – we Christians – are reluctant to undertake eco-Reformation because we have confused social ideals with the claims of the gospel and the illusion of self-determination with the power of the cross!

Washington Catholic Bishops Give Suggestions in Evaluating A Government Proposal for Carbon Tax

According to the National Catholic Reporter, October 12, Five Washington state Catholic bishops have offered suggestions as residents there prepare to vote November 6 on a measure that includes a price on carbon emissions. This bill, the Clean Air Clean Energy Initiative, was developed as an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by requiring Washington to invest in clean air and water and clean energy, support forests and ‘healthy communities.’ It would impose a fee on large carbon emitters based on the amount of pollution they release.

 
Given that our Canadian Federal and Provincial governments are wrestling with a tax on carbon pollution, perhaps this guidance would be helpful for us as well.

 
The bishops make these points:
*to weigh how any effort to impact climate change “should respect human life and dignity, especially that of the poorest and most vulnerable among us;”
*”local communities, especially low-income residents whose voice is not often heard, should have a voice in shaping the efforts to reduce carbon emissions;”
*the bishops called for “workers to be supported in dealing with the negative effects on the workforce resulting from a shift away from fossil fuels by receiving assistance to mitigate impacts on their livelihoods and families.”

 
Listen carefully to the criticisms of the recent federal proposals. There are claims that this is a tax grab. The carbon tax is not good for the taxpayers, perhaps costing families $300 or more in the first year and $2,500 more in five years. And it is alleged the carbon tax is dangerous to the environment.

 
One might wonder how money can be taken from industry and returned to the provincial citizens directly. What is the money to be used for?

 
There is a need to reduce the production of carbon pollution. Evidence indicates our estimates of what is required have been too low, and we are significantly behind schedule in affecting change.

 
How do these Catholic principles apply? What are we doing to respect the poor and vulnerable, those most affected by violent storms; changing fisheries; closing mines; rising tides; and polluted air, water and soil? We hear criticisms that government and industry do not consult enough and effectively. Who sits at these consultation tables in the first place? Likely there are more seats taken by investors and industrialists than the poor, marginalized and otherwise voiceless.

 
And the concerns of the laborers who are afraid of losing their jobs and communities are vital. Are we hearing enough about replacement labor in newly developing energy alternatives to fossil fuel? If the intent of the carbon tax is to make current industrial practices less profitable, then could not the income from this tax be redirected into research, development and retraining?

 
It sounds like the bishops are asking voters, Catholic or not, to consider the importance of the community caring for the community, not just the executives, board members and stock-holders. And to care for the environment as it is now, rather than the environment as it worsens later.

 
Whether voters are Lutheran, Catholic, or simply neighbors down the block, would the environmental crisis be different if we care about our grandchildren and the children across town who need clean air, safe drinking water and nutritious, flavorful food?

 

Something to consider next time you sit in your chapel… in a traffic jam…or a voting booth.