Not Another Hurricane?

Dear God, enough with the hurricanes already! And now one named Maria of all things bearing down on what’s left of some poor Caribbean islands? Yes, most of us understand that human destruction of the natural order is partly to blame for all the huge storms and wildfires and other disasters. Those who know and care about your creation are already on your side, and those who don’t get it are so deep in denial that they never will. So please give us a break! Haven’t enough lives been ruined already? In your mercy please spare the most vulnerable ones and kick the rest of us in the pants to not only help the storm victims but to start where we are now and do what we can to prepare for the new reality we are living in. Can’t you please find a less destructive way to impress upon us the urgency that saving the planet must be priority one? If we don’t do that nothing else really matters.

In the profound words of C.S. Lewis, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” The damage that has already been done to the environment is what it is. Help us confess our sin and face reality head on. Only then can we begin right where we are and start to change the grim future for life on this fragile planet you have entrusted into our care.

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Earth Day, Science and Religion

I spent Earth Day morning participating in one of the hundreds of Marches for Science held around the world today. I am not a scientist, although there was a time when I thought I would be. I did well in science and math in high school, and inspired by the 1960’s space race and my hometown hero Neil Armstrong I began college in a pre-engineering program. All went fairly well until I hit calculus and suddenly an earlier call to ministry started feeling like a much better fit for me.

So I mingled at the Ohio Statehouse on a chilly Saturday morning (void of any global warming benefits) with a few thousand other people of all ages feeling a bit out of my element. The speakers at the rally were all from the scientific community, and except for a few mentions of God when we sang “America the Beautiful” there were no official theological overtones to the program. I was pleased to see a couple of people from my church and a theology professor from my alma mater there.

I should say that my awareness to the issue of theology and religion was heightened by the fact that I am currently reading “Why Religion Matters” by Huston Smith, a very weighty tome that explores the impact of what Smith calls the Traditional and Modern worldviews. The former for Smith represents a theological/mystical perspective and the latter a purely scientific one. I readily admit it has been too many years since I studied philosophy for me to do justice to Smith’s argument, but he makes one distinction which I found very helpful, and that is when he distinguishes between “science” and “scientism.” He describes the difference like this: “Scientism adds to science two corollaries: first, that the scientific method is, if not the only reliable method of getting truth, than at least the most reliable method; and second, that the things science deals with—material entities—are the most fundamental things that exist.” (p. 64)

Theology and religion on the other hand deal with the mysterious and more ambiguous questions of meaning and purpose that lie beyond or deeper than any knowledge scientific experiments can provide. So while my co-marchers today were chanting about “peer reviewed research” and “scientific data,” my motivation for being at the rally had more to do with the Psalmist’s assertion that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for God has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.” (Psalm 24:1-2) I didn’t take time to make a sign for today’s march, but if I had mine might have had a footnote that said “marching for science (not scientism) AND faith.”

I hasten to add that scientific and theological worldviews are not mutually exclusive, even though they have often been characterized as foes. Speakers at the rally today celebrated a long list of illnesses that have been eliminated by medical science; they praised improved air and water quality made possible by environmental protection initiatives. And they legitimately, in my opinion, criticized short-sighted attempts by the Trump administration to cut back on important funding for the very programs that have given us a quality of life we take for granted.

I fully support the need for the NIH and the EPA. History should teach us that unregulated capitalism and free market motives quickly give into profit over prophetic concern for the general welfare and long-term preservation of God’s creation. So the political motives for today’s marches are grounded in the very theological issues of stewardship of what is not ours but God’s. It is good and necessary to celebrate all the advances in knowledge that scientific research has provided. But science without the safety net of theology always comes to the edge of human knowledge—the edge of mystery where we must take the proverbial leap of faith and trust in the source of being itself that some of us call God.

That partnership between science and faith was captured in my favorite sign among the hundreds held by marchers today. It contained this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.”

If we are going to save our planet from human foolishness we need to join hands and work together, scientists and people of faith, government and private industry, young and old, and people of every political persuasion. There is no time or energy to waste on false battles between different perspectives or worldviews. I heard an interview on NPR this week about someone dealing with working class populations that are too consumed with just staying alive to go marching for science or the environment. The reporter said, “They don’t care about polar bears, they care about jobs.” The one to whom the earth belongs and all that is in it says we need to care about both. A nation that can eliminate polio and smallpox can figure out how to put people to work. If we can send people and spacecraft into outer space we can establish social justice and turn back climate change.

It’s a matter of priority. Those urgent human problems will not be resolved by building ugly walls or more obscene methods of mass destruction. The scientific method itself is proof that our hypothesis that war will solve human differences is blatantly false. How many times do we need to run that experiment before we realize it is a false hypothesis? All of the world’s great religions are based on a better hypothesis that the way to world peace is to love our neighbors, and that includes caring for mother earth that is our common home.

On my way to the march today I heard a piece on NPR about a woman who has started a support group for people who are suffering from anxiety about climate change and what it means for our future and especially for that of our children and grandchildren. She did it because she realized that there were lots of other people like her who were feeling isolated and powerless in the face of the forces denying the very existence of climate change. I confess I suffer from some of those same feelings and if that support group wasn’t in Utah I might join up. My own personal struggle with powerlessness took the form this week of not deciding until the last minute if I was going to the march today. My skeptic voice kept saying it won’t make any difference, your arthritis won’t like the chilly temperatures, you have too much else to do around the house. But the stronger voice was the one that argued for responsible stewardship, discipleship and citizenship, a pretty powerful combination.

And I’m very glad I went. It felt wonderful to be part of a movement that stretched far beyond downtown Columbus, to feel connected with the earth and with kindred souls who share a common purpose. That sense of belonging was summed up nicely in one of the other songs we sang at the rally before the march, John Lennon’s “Imagine:”

“Imagine all the people sharing all the world,
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”

Stop Kicking the Can or Perish

I was reminded the other day of how strong denial can be in getting humans to face obvious but difficult realities. An obituary in a local newspaper reported that a person who was under hospice care had died “unexpectedly.” Seeing others in denial is worth a chuckle, but it’s also a reminder to check the mirror for any logs in our own eyes.

When I played “kick the can” as a child I never could have imagined what a dangerous political game it would become in the 21st century. The most recent federal fiscal fiasco has me reflecting on what the Judeo-Christian heritage has to say that can help save my grandchildren and their children from paying for the short-sightedness of my generation. This is not a new problem. Several times in the Hebrew Scriptures we are warned that the sins of one generation are visited upon their off-spring “to the 3rd and 4th generation” (Exodus 20:5, 34:6-7, Deuteronomy 5:9). Even though it’s bad theology to blame bad consequences on a vengeful God punishing children and grandchildren for their ancestors’ disobedience and foolishness, the simple wisdom that actions have consequences is indisputable and needs to be applied across the board to liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike, to complex problems like balancing the budget and global warming.

My first thought about political short-sightedness is often about climate change and the refusal of many conservatives to take seriously the mountain of scientific evidence that indicates we are damaging mother earth’s eco-system in a multitude of ways that will have irreversible long-term effects for much longer than 3 or 4 generations. When well-meaning politicians and business leaders say we can’t afford environmental regulations on businesses because of the short-term impact those laws have on employment and economic development, the Scripture that comes to mind is Proverbs 29:18. The King James translation of that verse I learned as a youth says, “Without vision the people perish.” More recent and better translations of the Hebrew text say, “When there is no prophesy (or prophetic vision) the people cast off restraint.” Modifying “vision” with “prophetic” is a critical distinction because short-sighted goals that favor the bottom line at all costs are still visions, but they lead to long-term disaster. Faithful, prophetic visions however take into consideration both the short-term and long-term consequences of our decisions for the well-being of all God’s children, even those yet to be born.

Two word-study comments are in order: “Prophesy” in biblical terms is often confused with simply foretelling the future, but that key theological concept is far more complicated that simple crystal-ball gazing. The Hebrew prophets were not psychics but those anointed by God to speak God’s word of truth to those who need to but usually do not want to hear it. A common phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures is “the law and the prophets” indicating both the need to know God’s laws and codes of behavior represented by such passages as the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20), but also the practical interpretation and application of those general rules for living to specific circumstances. The latter critical thinking is what prophets do. The second phrase in Proverbs 29:18 that is worthy of comment is “the people cast off restraint.” The other use of that phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures occurs in Exodus 32:25 where the Hebrew people make and worship a golden calf even while Moses is on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew words there are translated as describing the Hebrew condition as “total loss of social order,” “out of control,” or “laughingstock.” It seems to me those terms could easily be applied to the polarized political situation in the U.S. today.

Here’s my latest take on the common problem on both sides of the political debate, i.e. short-sightedness or lack of prophetic vision. On one side we have the simple mathematical facts that (1) spending billions more than we have is a sure-fire formula for disaster and (2) our current system of providing resources for our increasingly older population, i.e. Social Security and Medicare, is not sustainable unless it is reformed. Everyone acknowledges those elephants are in the room and getting bigger every day, but no one so far is willing to pay the political price of picking up that hot potato and making the painful decisions necessary to address the problems. “Kicking the can down the road” has become the catch phrase for passing the buck, which means visiting the consequences of our short-sighted denial of these problems onto the 3rd or 4th generation.

Another major issue demanding solution is the environmental survival vs. economic growth impasse. This issue is so critical for humankind that it cannot be an either/or partisan debate that results in stubborn refusal on both sides to do anything or we will indeed perish as Proverbs predicts. Prophetic vision demands courage on both sides of the political spectrum to lead us out of denial to a willingness to make whatever political and economic sacrifices must be made that will not be popular with anyone but are necessary for the long-term survival of our nation and our planet.

For Christians this season of Lent is a perfect time to reflect upon the necessity of sacrificial living. None of our current societal problems can be solved with a competitive win-lose mind set. Every citizen and political faction must be willing to compromise and find common ground instead of the perpetual electioneering we now have. The Hebrew prophets can serve as models for that kind of servant leadership. Biblical prophets never won any popularity contests or elections because they spoke truth instead of party platitudes or ideology. They put integrity and facing uncomfortable truths ahead of personal goals and comfort. Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah were willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, and we need leaders today who are willing to do the same today before it’s too late.

Jesus followed in the footsteps of those Hebrew prophets. He took upon himself the role of suffering servant and prophet described centuries earlier by the anonymous prophet known as Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem in the final months of his life and nothing could deter or detour him from his destiny on the cross. His disciples repeatedly urged him to bail and take an easier path, but Jesus knew what was required of him and put God’s truth and justice above all thoughts of personal comfort or glory. My prayer is that God will raise up leaders again today with that kind of courage and that all of us will have ears to hear and courage to follow instead of just kicking the can down the road to some other generation.

For this Lent 2013 with sequestration, budget cuts, climate change and a host of other challenges, I find inspiration and guidance in the words of a great hymn by S. Ralph Barlow, “O Young and Fearless Prophet.”

“O young and fearless Prophet of ancient Galilee,
Thy life is still a summons to serve humanity;
To make our thoughts and actions less prone to please the crowd,
To stand with humble courage for truth with hearts uncowed.

We marvel at the purpose that held Thee to Thy course
While ever on the hilltop before Thee loomed the cross;
Thy steadfast face set forward where love and duty shone,
While we betray so quickly and leave Thee there alone.

O help us stand unswerving against war’s bloody way,
Where hate and lust and falsehood hold back Christ’s holy sway;
Forbid false love of country that blinds us to His call,
Who lifts above the nations the unity of all.

Stir up in us a protest against our greed for wealth,
While others starve and hunger and plead for work and health;
Where homes with little children cry out for lack of bread,
Who live their years sore burdened beneath a gloomy dread.

Create in us the splendor that dawns when hearts are kind,
That knows not race nor station as boundaries of the mind;
That learns to value beauty, in heart, or brain, or soul,
And longs to bind God’s children into one perfect whole.

O young and fearless Prophet, we need Thy presence here,
Amid our pride and glory to see Thy face appear;
Once more to hear Thy challenge above our noisy day,
Again to lead us forward along God’s holy way.”