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Pentecost Matters: Convenience is Killing Us and Recycling Won’t Save Us

I found Lent rather harrowing this year, and these fifty days of Easter now coming to a close frequently sobering, with the long post-Pentecost “green season” looming in California as a mostly brown and brittle time, punctuated with wild-fire anxiety.

In fact, we’re expecting our first heat wave of the season this weekend, with the Day of Pentecost itself breaking the 100-degree mark; the National Weather Service has issued its first “red flag warning” of the year—a dismaying reflection of the color for this liturgical feast day.

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Political discourse and national policies have been setting many of us on edge for some time, not least for the gut-wrenching treatment of migrants and their children at the U.S. border with Mexico. This would have sufficed to bathe our liturgical patterns with unease, but these distressing moments have unfolded in the crucible of a planetary emergency I can scarcely comprehend.

A short list of that emergency’s features: living in the midst of this planet’s sixth great extinction event, which we ourselves have caused; an alarming range of foods and beverages testing positive for the carcinogenic compound glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed-killer Roundup (even organic foods are not safe given the porous character of farming boundaries and “forever chemicals” lacing everything we touch); dozens of dead whales washing up on the western shores of the U.S., starving from lack of food or with their bellies filled with our plastic waste; otherwise pristine environments littered with micro-plastics (from the sea creatures at the deepest part of the deepest ocean trench to the crisp mountain terrain of the Pyrenees where it actually rains plastic).whale_air

I used to take some modest comfort when confronting these vexations by following an assiduous regimen of recycling; this too has collapsed toward the brink of despair—what we thought can be recycled efficiently, can’t; and what could be, no longer is. China’s refusal to take any more American trash and deal with our steady stream of barges bulging with “recyclables” simply revealed a nasty truth about Western approaches to “ecological management”: There is no way to live with the many conveniences we now enjoy without also damaging and, indeed, killing the very ecosystems that give us life.

That bears repeating: We can no longer live the way we do, and this will be profoundly inconvenient (a word, as Al Gore reminded us, that the modern West finds terribly distasteful).

The global juggernaut known as Capitalism lies at the root of this distress, but this means much more than dealing with questions of “free trade” or shareholder value. Scholar and journalist James Dyke aptly describes the situation like this:

Most of humanity is tightly enmeshed into a globalised, industrialised complex system – that of the technosphere, the size, scale and power of which has dramatically grown since World War II… The purpose of humans in this context is to consume products and services. The more we consume, the more materials will be extracted from the Earth, and the more energy resources consumed, the more factories and infrastructure built. And ultimately, the more the technosphere will grow…

The stark and grim reality of the “technosphere” is the depth of change now required to dismantle it; “conservation” is not enough and recycling will not save us. That is precisely the insight that shaped my Lenten discipline as I tried desperately to rid my daily life of single-use plastic and mostly failed. Achieving that goal would mean changing dramatically the way I live. And, frankly, I found this too difficult.

My longstanding attempt for quick-and-easy solutions to ecological disaster repeats a similar (and equally ill-founded) way to manage the sickening shock of crucifixion and death. Quite frequently in my life, whenever Easter arrived on the calendar, my spiritual temperature registered relief more than life-changing astonishment:

Whew! We sure dodged that bullet! Great to have you back, Jesus. Now, let’s pick up where we left off.

This is, of course, the very same posture Luke imagined the first disciples of Jesus to adopt in that first Easter season. Encountering the risen Jesus, they ask of him: “Is this the time you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) To which Jesus replies (patiently, I trust) with something like this: “No. This isn’t about going back or staying put; it’s about moving forward. It’s about something New.”

The great proclamation of Easter is not about restoration but rather resurrection, which is not a confirmation of what has been but rather a transformation who we are. This is what the flame-drenched outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost ought to signal—not the fortitude to keep living exactly the way we have before, but burning away the old to make room for a brand new kind of existence.

Pentecost matters—and by extension, the whole of the Church year—in large measure because of the reminders of hope scattered throughout its calendrical rhythms. More than this, for the sustenance needed to live with hope at all. I mean still more by evoking what matters for Pentecost, or the matter of Pentecost itself.

The celebration of the Holy Spirit has too often drifted toward the ethereal and immaterial, especially in the modern West, where the word “spiritual” carries with it at least a suspicion of the “physical.” That suspicion stands in stark contrast to how many of our ancestors in Christian traditions understood the presence of the Holy Spirit—a physical manifestation of a material reality, one that quite literally infuses our bodies, circulates through our arteries and remakes us (among others, see Dale Martin’s work on this).

Right there is where the hope I need resides, in the divine embrace of the bodily and physical announced at Christmas, marked during Epiphany, tested throughout Lent, and raised to new glory at Easter; it is the essence of marking the season of Pentecost with the color green–the living, breathing, animating presence of God on and in Earth.

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This is not, to be clear, a hope that enables any passivity on my part, as if I can simply wait for God to fix the mess our species has made of God’s dear and precious Earth. It does mean that the transformation this planet now desperately needs is made possible at all by what Elizabeth Johnson compellingly describes as the “deep incarnation” of the Divine Word and the “deep resurrection” of life inaugurated at Easter. God’s creative and redeeming presence, in other words, runs “all the way down” into the deepest depths of God’s creation, to the cellular, atomic level.

That “great work” of God, the healing of our bodies and the body of Earth together, is the work to which the Holy Spirit calls us to join and encourages us to imagine and equips us to do. It is a call, and it does take courage, and we need help, because it will mean a complete and utter transformation of how we live.

Modern (Western) convenience is literally killing us and the planet. Recycling will not save us from this catastrophe, but conversion will, to use an old fashioned word that deserves a comeback.

If the “miracle” of the first Pentecost was the ability to speak in languages one had never learned to speak, then the equally miraculous Pentecostal moment we must pray for today is the ability to live in ways the modern West has not trained us to imagine—in a word, inconveniently.

Come, Holy Spirit.

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Holy Saturday: Rest, Reparations, and Hope for Earth

In some Christian traditions, Jesus spent the day between Good Friday and Easter busily harrowing Hell, toppling its gates and freeing all the dead who were dwelling there from ages past. This is the divine version of “no child left behind” but for every human, and I would now revise this to mean “no creature left behind.” The whole creation finds healing and liberation in the unfathomable mystery of Easter.

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“Harrowing of Hell” (Benvenuto di Giovanni, 1490)

But here we still live, in that great liminal day between imperial crucifixion and the divine burst of new life. If Jesus were to harrow Hell today, he wouldn’t have to travel very far from where most of us live—next to toxic waste dumps, petroleum refineries, poisoned water supplies, landfills brimming with plastic. Earth herself needs to rest, to recover, to repair.

Is it time to ponder reparations for the planet?

I fully support reparations for the descendants of African slaves in this country, and for indigenous tribes decimated by American genocide, and for many others as well. Perhaps now is the time to add Earth to that list, to offer this planet a reprieve from the daily torture we inflict on her ecosystems and many creatures, some space and time to repair and renew.

This is of course impossible; we cannot simply stop doing what we’re doing, not even for a day let alone what is more genuinely needed—at least a whole year. Impossible at first blush, perhaps, but not after a moment’s recollection of how quickly the world’s wealthy pledged astonishing amounts of money to fix Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It’s time they stepped up again, acknowledged that their wealth came in large measure from raping the planet, and chip in some reparations.

In 2018, the world had 2,208 billionaires with a combined net worth of approximately $9.1 trillion. If we created a planetary reparations fund and demanded a simple tithe from those wealthy folks, we would have quite a tidy little sum to get us started on what is now necessary: stopping most human activity and resting; the fund could go toward ensuring certain vital services remain operating and that people are fed while the planet rests, resets, repairs.

Holy Saturday is the perfect day on which to contemplate such a harrowing idea as we dare to hope for resurrection. It is a good day, perhaps, to plumb the depths of God’s grace, to journey with Jesus to the roots of our distress and resurface with hope.

I’m grateful for theologian Elizabeth Johnson and her elegant, eloquent words for precisely that hope. May her words accompany us into the blazing light of a deep resurrection, and inspire a renewed commitment to this planet, our shared homeland:

In our day we discover that the great incomprehensible mystery of God, utterly transcendent and beyond the world, is also the dynamic power at the heart of the natural world and its evolution. Groaning with the world, delighting in its advance, keeping faith with its failures, energizing it graciously from within, the Creator Spirit is with all creatures in their finitude and death, holding them in redemptive love and drawing them into an unforeseeable future in the divine life of communion (Quest for the Living God, 198).

Late afternoon at the regional park

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Apocalypse Kind-of-Now: A Brown Green Season?

Ecological “issues” are an annoying interruption of the stuff that matters now. I don’t really believe that, but my blog posts would suggest otherwise.

I had a plan. Write about the war on women’s bodies in Lent and write about ecology in Easter – the new creation, totally tied to women’s bodies and gender. Lovely plan, but current events intervened.

And that is precisely the problem.

I totally support full marriage equality for all couples; the end to poverty and racism; full agency for women in decisions about their bodies. So why does the very framework that makes any of those possible in any way get such short shrift? I mean the planetary environment upon which each of relies for every breath.

Here’s the thing: “Apocalypse” is nigh; if not “now,” then soon, within my lifetime (if I’m lucky enough to live another 30 years). Hyperbole? Not really. Read just this one among many accounts of what we’re facing right now (here’s the lede of that story, which you shouldn’t read if you are prone to insomnia because of fretting: “The Earth is within decades of reaching an irreversible tipping point that could result in ‘planetary collapse’, scientists warned yesterday.”) Read yet another alarming account here.

Important digression: I adore my ten-year-old godson (oh, God, could he just say ten forever? No…not good. But he rocks my world right now). Okay, my point: Will he be able to live on this planet 30 years from now? Probably, but not likely in the same comfortable way that I am living on it now. That breaks my heart.

But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that my adorable godson is not the only reason why any of us should care about the environment, and passionately, with urgency. So why should we?

In some Christian circles (very similar to the one in which I grew up), there is no reason. We actually don’t have to care. The theological logic goes basically like this: God created a good world; humans screwed it up; God sent Jesus (oh, after that Israel interlude, of course) to save us; those who believe all this will go to heaven, a literally disembodied, unearthly place where we don’t have to fret about things like nuclear power plants, plastic choking our oceans, massive extinction events, or potable water.

I’m really not making this up. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians of a certain type truly believe that Earth is disposable; God will create a new one.

Let me be clear: I have no desire to set up an “us versus them” scenario here in which us good liberal Christians save the planet while those fundamentalists destroy it. That would be easier to write about, frankly. More accurately, there are some Evangelical Christians who are far more passionate about the environment than many of the liberal, “progressive” Christians I know.

Now that’s peculiar. And I take a great deal of hope from it. Decades ago Lynn White, Jr., wrote a devastating essay about religion and its deleterious effects on the environment (read about it here, and yes this is a Wikipedia link). Taking his critique seriously means that we need compelling religious and theological reasons why priority #1 right now is the planet itself. Thankfully, those reasons are ready-to-hand. (Check out this, and this, and this.)

But we do have a problem: current events will always interrupt us. The latest sound bite, the latest outrage about women’s bodies, LGBT people, the economy, war….all of these will always interrupt what we need to do and say right now about where we live, right now.

I don’t have any solutions to the problem of compelling interruptions. I issue only a plea: Let us please figure out how this long “green season” in the Church year after Pentecost can inspire all of us finally to do something about a planet that is dying, right now – our planet, this “fragile earth, our island home” (The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 370).

Come on. Let’s figure this out – for my beloved godson, your grandchild, your niece, your neighbor, the puppies your dog is about to have, the litter of cougar cubs that will be born this year, the salmon spawning in our rivers, just take your pick  – let’s figure this out for all of us, for all of them, for all.

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“Enchanté, Madame”: Why Good Policy Alone Won’t Save Us

Christ is risen and we’re killing the planet. I know – you’ve heard something similar countless times. Another species extinct. Another ecosystem threatened. Global climate change. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Maybe you haven’t heard this one quite so often: If it’s okay to rape women, it’s okay to rape the planet.

That grisly connection is, alas, being performed right now on legislative stages in Washington, D.C. and in far too many states. The link between the current war on women and the war on the planet (the former talked about incessantly these days and the latter, not so much), is subtle but vitally important.

I firmly believe that the many complex “issues” we face today are woven together in complex, lovely, troubling, spiritual ways. I want to try to evoke that here, if only as a preface to the great work our species must now confront. So let’s consider just a few of the dots that need connecting at the moment:

  • First, access to birth control and abortion (which is still technically legal in this country) is under attack. If only this were old news. I appreciate the moral quandaries faced by people of good faith about abortion, but now we’re seeing restrictions appearing even when the health of the mother is at stake, and even in cases of rape and incest. So, is it really okay to rape women? (For more on access issues, read here, which is wonky and policy-heavy, but important; or Rachel Maddow’s take on it here.)
  • Second, access to clean water, clean air, and a safe food supply is equally under attack. This doesn’t appear often enough in the headlines. According to some, the current Congress is the most anti-environment Congress in U.S. history. (Read more about that here; though this is a partisan source, it nonetheless provides helpful links to actual legislation, and it’s disturbing.)
  • Third, access to the truth requires tedious knowledge of legislative riders, appropriations bills, and countless other political arcana that make most people reach for a cocktail instead. The U.S. House, for example, recently passed a much needed piece of legislation for student loans, but paid for it by reducing health care funding that might affect women the most. (The word “might” is important there and I recommend Ezra Klein’s take on this here.)

These are not sexy dots to connect. But connect them we must. Consider this recent pithy observation about environmental responsibility from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: the world is “not just a huge warehouse of stuff to be used for our convenience.” (Read a great essay on this here.)

I can’t help but wonder if far too many men think the same way about women – women’s bodies as warehouses, incubators, resources, objects. We’ve had a few decades now of insightful analysis about the link between male privilege and ecological degradation – men can control “mother” nature just like they (try to) control women. But I’m not at all convinced that such a link has sunk into our collective consciousness. (Even less likely to have sunk in are the connections between misogyny, homophobia, and global climate change…but I digress.)

So I wonder: How might all of us think differently about our own bodies, the bodies of others, the bodies of non-human animals, and the body of this planet? Would thinking differently make a difference in how we live, the social policies we support, the politicians we elect? I hope so. But what does “thinking differently” mean?

What about “enchantment”?

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a book that proposed precisely that and I’m still trying to tease out its implications. The book is by James William Gibson, called A Re-enchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature. It’s an insightful, heartbreaking, hopeful, and lovely book. I also believe Gibson captured something critical and essential: arguing about environmental policy won’t solve any of our problems unless we rekindle our nearly forgotten enchantment with nature.

By “enchantment,” Gibson means many things at once: nature isn’t anyone’s private property; it isn’t just a “resource”; it has its own life and value and beauty quite apart from humanity; and it’s uncanny, uncontrollable, lovely, grotesque, compelling, beyond categories of human meaning making. It is, in a word, enchanting.

I really want to think more and write more about this, and I will. But for now, in the midst of these Great Fifty Days of Easter (Easter is a season, longer than Lent), I frequently find my spiritual attention gravitating toward the image of the “new creation.” The resurrection of Jesus wasn’t just for him, and it wasn’t just for every other human. In some way, Easter proclaims God’s stubborn commitment to life for everything, without exception. Now that is surely peculiar, thankfully.

So, could that great Gospel proclamation lead us to a re-enchantment with the world and all its many wondrously uncanny and glorious bodies? Could it, at long last, dismantle the utilitarian and objectifying posture toward women’s bodies that so many politicians, not to mention religious leaders, seem to adopt? Could Easter move us to find each other and the world around us enchanting?

I believe it could. And not a moment too soon.

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Green (Hornet) Grace

Welcome to the Green Season, when the polar icecaps are melting, the oceans are dying, and the air we breathe grows more toxic every day! The crafters of the Christian liturgical calendar didn’t have any of those climate catastrophes in mind, of course. They were literally unthinkable until recently. Yet the tragic if unintended liturgical irony persists.

Traditionally, liturgical vestments are green in this long season that follows the Feast of Pentecost and runs all the way to Advent (often the last Sunday in November). In the northern hemisphere, that color makes sense as crops are growing, fruit is ripening, and harvest is peaking up over the horizon. So also for the Church – Pentecost prompts growth, the blossoming of the Spirit’s work, and an anticipation of the divine harvest at the end of time, celebrated on the first Sunday of Advent.

Sounds great, but last month, just twelve days after Pentecost, a report was presented to the United Nations declaring that a massive, oceans-wide extinction of marine life is now underway and is all but inevitable. This should have been even more newsworthy than marriage equality in New York – we can protect the kids of gay and lesbian couples with the benefits of marriage but will we give them an inhabitable planet to live on?

There’s more at stake here than whether we should eat salmon. Think of the oceans as your own cardiovascular system – without it, you’re dead. And that report to the U.N. was just the latest of the “oops, it’s worse than we thought” reports about the devastating changes through which this planet’s climate is currently lurching. (Read about that report and others here.)

The planet is dying. Why aren’t we in the streets protesting vociferously the absurd policies of our world’s governments? Are we preaching about this from our pulpits?

So, green for this season? Really? What’s the color of sludge, or dead fish, or torpor?

No, none of those despairing colors will do, not even now, not if Pentecost is still worth celebrating. I’ll still go with green for this long season if it can stand for a vibrant hope. Yet even that needs a caveat. As some in President Obama’s own party have been reminding him lately, hope is not enough. And as Harvey Milk once said, “It’s not that we can live on hope alone, but that without it, life isn’t worth living.”

Maybe the Green Hornet can energize the hope of this season into action. I’ve always liked this about that fictional crime fighter: he doesn’t have any superhuman powers like Spiderman or Wonder Woman do. He was just an ordinary guy who grew sick of political corruption and rampant crime, someone who refused to believe that there were no solutions; he became a solution himself.

That sounds a least a bit like Pentecost. The Spirit doesn’t just snap her fingers and make things happen. She empowers people (and often the least likely by most standards) to transform, renew, heal, and generally “turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). (Read my take on the “Peculiar Pentecost Agenda” here.)

We need to tap that world-changing energy again, especially given modern western Christianity’s abdication of nearly all environmental responsibility and its acquiescence, especially in the United States, to the beguilements of corporate profit in the name of religious patriotism, which have nearly eviscerated any traction the Gospel might have had for our current crises.

And I’m pointing that finger at myself. I’m no less culpable than anyone else for the planetary mess we now face. I still drive my car whenever I please, buy way too much useless stuff, and rather naively trust that “good” politicians will sort this all out.

Here’s the thing: They won’t. It’s up to us, all the ordinary, unremarkable but fabulous creatures of God, empowered by the Spirit, to turn this dire tide. Because of the hope that Spirit inspires, I refuse to believe that there’s nothing to be done – but what do we do?

I honestly don’t know. I do know that I need lots of “Katos.” The Green Hornet needed a companion, just as the so-called “Lone” Ranger did.

I can’t change the world by myself. The earliest Christians couldn’t, either. They needed a community. And so do we, especially in this “green season” when the icecaps are melting, the oceans are dying, and we’re choking on the air we make by just driving to work (if we’re lucky enough to have a job).

So, how should we do it? How can we make the green of this long season more than a liturgical color? Where do we find the Green (Hornet) Grace we need and what do we do with it?