“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind”. (Acts 2:1-2 NRSV)
“Tornadoes killed at least 11 across Midwest, South. The sprawling storm system also brought wildfires to the southern plains and blizzard conditions to the upper Midwest.” WBNS TV headline, Columbus, OH, April 1, 2023
I attended the annual Schooler Institute on Preaching at the Methodist Theological in Ohio this past week. The lectures and preaching by Dr. Luke Powery from Duke University were excellent, but one word I heard for the first time has stuck with me. Dr. Powery’s theme for the two day conference was “Preaching and the Holy Spirit,” and one text he preached on was the familiar Pentecost story from Acts 2.
The “new” word for me is in the second verse of that chapter where it says “the rush of a violent wind.” I normally use the NRSV translation, and I didn’t remember that word “violent” being in that translation. I have always heard and read that verse describing “a mighty wind.” The word “violent” just strikes me as a strange way to describe the Holy Spirit of a gracious and loving God. (Sure enough when I went back to both copies of the NRSV Bible that I have, one that was copyrighted in 1993, both translate that word as “violent.” It was not till I went back to the King James Version of my youth that I found the translation that has been residing in my memory for decades. The KJV’s translation of that verse is “a rushing mighty wind.”) Maybe I’m in denial about the power of Holy Spirit, but I am still more comfortable with a mighty wind than a violent one.
When I think of a violent wind I don’t have to look beyond daily news stories about deadly tornados and cyclones that are a weekly occurrence this year, and that’s no April Fool. Here in central Ohio we are under a high wind advisory again today as I write this, exactly seven days after high winds here knocked out electricity for thousands of people. And we’re the lucky ones. Those were “mighty” winds in Ohio but not nearly as violent as other parts of the country and world have experienced.
The winds last week were the strongest I have ever personally experienced in my 76 years of life. They were officially recorded at 49 MPH at John Glenn International Airport in Columbus, Ohio. And now this weekend in addition to more deadly storms that have killed at least 22 people in seven states, a tornado touched down near my hometown of Wapakoneta in northwest Ohio. According to the National Weather Service we have had 130 tornados in the U.S. already this year which is a150% increase over last year. That’s what I would call some pretty violent winds.
In her book, “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World,” Katharine Hayhoe describes even more violent winds like Hurricane Maria that ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017. “It’s estimated to have caused several thousand deaths, while also destroying more than 80% of the territory’s utility poles and transmission lines. Storm damage caused the longest blackout in U.S. history—in some places, over eleven months without power. For many hospitals and senior citizen residences, this was a key contributor to the mounting death toll. “ (p. 178).
Sometimes mighty or even violent winds bring positive change as they did on the Day of Pentecost. Hayhoe reports that Puerto Rico is now building solar and battery capacity that will ultimately transition the island to 100% clean energy. Unfortunately in our time of extreme political partisanship such positive change only comes after terrible storm damage.
It was not always so. Ronald Reagan, yes that Ronald Reagan, stated in 1984, “Preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it’s common sense.” Apparently many of our current Congress people didn’t get that memo.
In the face of all the floods, blizzards, tornados, and nor’easters we’ve already had in 2023 I am amazed that there has been almost no public outcry or discussion about the impact climate change is having as it increases the frequency and destructive force of these weather events. How can we explain this mass avoidance of the obvious and important threat to our way of life and perhaps the long term viability of life on Earth?
Perhaps the lack of attention to climate change is because there are plenty of other crises bombarding us for our attention, many of which are more immediate, like surviving and rebuilding after multiple natural disasters. Such existential crises make it very hard to think about solutions to a global problem that may not be fully realized in my lifetime. But it is coming for my children and grandchildren, and we can’t wait any longer to pay attention and do long-range planning.
One major reason for our willful avoidance of reality is what Alastair McIntosh describes as “denialism.” Hayhoe (p. 134) quotes McIntosh as defining it this way: “Denialism…keeps at bay what might be—fears, guilt and a sense of shame, not to mention all that lurks behind a need for CO2-belching markers of identity such as wait out in the car park.”
Hayhoe says those of us who are concerned about what’s causing the rash of deadly storms marching across our country every week may suffer from “eco-anxiety,” which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “extreme worry about current and future harm to the environment caused by human activity and climate change.” Ironically the dictionary adds that eco-anxiety is not considered to be a mental disorder since it is a “rational response to current climate science reporting.”
We have plenty of reason to be anxious and even fearful about the climate crisis that has been building to a crescendo ever since the Industrial Revolution began in the late 19th century. Fear is not a pleasant emotion, but it can be a positive force for good if we channel our eco-anxiety into creative ways to be better stewards of God’s creation. I’m sure the disciples were frightened by the mighty/violent win on the Day of Pentecost, but they didn’t let that fear stop them from sharing the Gospel with a crowd of people from a multitude of countries.
May these violent winds we are experiencing in 2023 transform us and propel us into action to speed up our responses to our climate crisis. As Kathryn Hayhoe puts it, “I believe it’s what we do with that fear that makes all the difference.”