In February's lingering winter we face our individual and collective misdeeds to people and Earth. So often we are unwilling to face our collective problems, including corporate greed and governmental acquiescence. We stumble; we hear discordance; we savor the chance to deny, excuse, or escape. In desolation we must turn beyond ourselves and in a state of need we come to our companion Jesus. Our responses go beyond non-confrontation by adapting simple living techniques. Confrontation is necessary even though difficult, for this requires our purification and self-denial so as to gain the courage to become authentic Earthhealers. In doing so we accept the mystery of suffering in its fullness.
Wild Garlic's Blessings
You are so gallant standing in sharp breezes, first to spring forth in an unawakened landscape. You show your presence by tainting milk of cows allowed freely to find your sprigs.
You strive to give flavor to our culinary dishes, a brave offering to the quality of our lives. You announce in a simple way new life, and, amid late winter, a blessed message.
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Discovering colorful fungi on the forest floor.
February 1, 2015 Speaking with Authority
The people were spellbound by his teaching because he taught with authority and not like the Scribes. (Mark 1:22)
The promise of raising up prophets is found in Deuteronomy 18:15-20. God raises up a prophetic voice so people can hear and see that God's grace is at work, calling people back to the ways of the Lord. The prophetic ministry is especially needed in times of troubles such as these, and so God does not abandon us but gives us an active prophetic ministry within our Church community and among baptized Christians. History shows us in every age of the Church that authority is exercised for better or worse. Truly some people, such as Martin Luther King, will rise up and speak in a distinct prophetic manner, but it is Church as community that is invested with Christ's authority in troubled times.
Christ speaks with authority in a way that others do not, and the contrast brings people closer to him. The structure of the religious establishment in his time is steeped in obeisance to the politico-religious leaders. People thirst for his word, and Jesus never ignores a genuine request. Today's passage (Mark 1:21-28) is a fast-moving narrative of the amazement of hearers and disruption of the unclean spirit shrieking. It is a troubling event, a moment when authority is needed in order to control the situation. And Jesus responds and speaks with authority because he acts with authority, his words coupled with deeds. Merely preaching is not sufficient. Jesus acts directly by casting out evil spirits.
Authority in the Church. Authority comes through Baptism and living fully the sacramental life. People who despise the Church seek to demean her authority, as though authority of itself is not in keeping with a free spirit. But Spirit is authority and the one with the Spirit is empowered to act. This empowerment is found in both individuals and communities and continues through the ages. When people want someone or an organization to speak up for justice and the disadvantaged, authority practiced by godly persons and communities is paramount. When people misuse authority by speaking in an "authoritarian" manner, it weakens the whole structure and the atmosphere in which true authority should be exercised.
Authority among Christian people. Each of us is baptized as priest, prophet, and king with latent authority associated with their functioning. We often overlook our own role as people charged with taking responsibility in rare circumstances. When called to change situations, we draw on authority given in our Baptism. When we act justly and bind word with deed through integrity, others recognize this as acting with authority. Jesus replies to the inquiry of the disciples of John to who he is; he responds that they can observe what he does when he acts. Through the zealous deeds accompanying words, we show through our actions that we strive to godliness with the power of God at work.
Prayer: Lord, make your authority shine through our actions.
Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace, just as you promised; because my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all the nations to see, a light to enlighten the pagans, and the glory of your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
In February, we look out each morning to see new light coming up earlier and earlier. We are awaiting the spring, when days expand and when we can almost hear the sap rising. We smell the pungent wood smoke and taste true maple syrup, but we still feel lingering winter's coldness. We bless candles that symbolize the new light now coming into the world. "Light from light" is not fully appreciated, but it is a "presentation" in the natural temple of our Earth. Through our desolation amid troubling issues comes a ray of hope, a consolation emerging in our wounded Earth. In this month we see the wounds of Earth in a vivid manner, but we also have the first dawn of a healing process.
But reality extends beyond nature in its untouched splendor that we experience with each fresh snowfall. In this virgin beauty we dare to go out into the snowscape and make tracks, though rabbits often are there before us. Underneath may be the indelible traces of earth-moving equipment and development. New glory coexists with glory tarnished and distorted. The idealist with narrow sight tries to retreat to untouched primitive areas -- and paradoxically disturb their ever shrinking space in the process. The Garden of Eden only exists in our dreams and hopes; our ancestors messed things up and that messing has accelerated in recent times with sophisticated resource extraction equipment motivated by the appetite for more and more material things.
An authentic eco-spirituality refutes both the idealism of continuing natural untouched glory and the current fatalism that says we cannot halt the onrushing mistreatment of Mother Earth. A truly "deep ecology" accepts the real current situation, knows it for what it is, and calls for the purification of us healers. The Earth's situation is not a fairy tale where automatically all will live happily ever after. As realists we regard ourselves as agents of change from a fossil to a renewable energy economy.
Eco-troubles accompany the impending dangers of climate change excess: 1) the recent drastic extinction of native plant and animal species, while some species proliferate, especially exotic and invasive species; 2) the increase in noise pollution that adds stress to our lives; 3) the global bad taste of water pollution that affects many of the world's poor; 4) the smell of air pollutants and the deadly effects of worrisome but odorless pollutants causing a greenhouse effect; and 5) current challenging diseases such as the threatening global epidemic of Ebola that is all the more serious due to rapid mobility of people.
Prayer: Lord, touch our hearts with compassion for both suffering people and our suffering Earth.
This is why the country is in mourning, and all who live in it pine away, even the wild animals and the birds of heaven; the fish of the sea themselves are perishing. (Hosea 4: 3)
We were walking on the Kentucky Sheltowee Trace Trail (part of the Daniel Boone National Forest) documenting the effects of off-road vehicles on this 250-mile walking trail that was first used by Native Americans. We came across a small tarpon, with its shell smashed by the tires of an ORV. And to think, Sheltowee means turtle. The terrible sight hurt us deeply.
We look about and we see the result of human misdeeds in the world around us. That is why we consider the sense of sight first. Many of us Christians disapprove of religious experience that focuses on hearing alone -- the preached word, the songs, and person-to-person encouragement, all good but not complete. "Catholic" signifies the use of all the senses: the sight of colorful vestments, stained glass windows and crèches; the sounds of music and chant; the smell of incense, flowers, balm, and snuffed-out candles; the taste of the Eucharist; and the touch of the laying on of hands, the sign of peace embrace, and the anointing with oil.
Extinction of species. We look about and perceive forms of desolation all around us. In the 19th century, bounty hunters would ride the trains on the American Great Plains and shoot the American bison for the fun of it, thus ruining the "Buffalo Commons." This sport both destroyed the Plains Native American's livelihood and cleared the railroad tracks of any disturbances from crossing herds; by the turn of the century (1900) there remained only two remnant U.S. herds. The fate of passenger pigeons was even worse; in previous centuries, passenger pigeons darkened the sky near their traditional roosting areas, which covered many square miles. The last pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1915.
The fate of the bison and passenger pigeon should teach us to protect fragile wildlife. However, in a land replete with the Jacksonian Era horror of forcing Native American tribes to distant reservations, appreciation of wildlife native habitat was slow in coming. Song birds were killed in great numbers because the hat-making industry sought plumage for headgear during the early part of the 20th century. Emerging conservation groups such as the Audubon Society began to call attention to bird and other wildlife destruction. Still today, unsustainable forest harvest and road fragmentation continue to threaten bird and wildlife habitats. Wetlands, which are the rich nesting and feeding grounds for many species, have been drained. Intake of pesticides or toxic materials collected further down the food chain have been a threat to high chain feeders such as the eagles and hawks.
Prayer: Lord, give us a deeper understanding of the care we
must give to preserve and foster habitats of all wildlife.
Majestic coyote, Canis latrans, on central Kentucky farm.
February 4, 2015 Defending Wildlife Threats
Raise the wail and lamentation for the mountains, the dirge for the desert pastures, for they have been burnt: no one passes there, the sound of flocks is heard no more. Birds of the sky and animals, all have fled, all are gone. (Jeremiah 9:9-10)
Many of the habitats of wildlife in this country and world are being threatened by climate change, resource extraction practices, fire roads, excessive noise, and other assaults. For instance, wild ginseng, highly prized as a medicinal in Asia, has been harvested to extinction in the sparse forestlands of China and now is being over-harvested in North America, both by poachers and by the proliferation of wild turkeys that crush ingested seeds.
Poaching and overharvesting is a world threat. Experts in botanicals refuse to publicly identify commercially valuable varieties for fear of extinction by unscrupulous harvesters. Larger mammal wildlife has been poached because of prized tusks, furs, hides, and other commercial commodities. The Northern white rhino is down to one male and five females, and every year we hear of the rapid decline in elephant, tiger, and other populations. Much depends on the ability of national and regional wildlife agents to guard against poaching and by enforceable global trade restrictions. Culprits go beyond poachers to traders and ultimate affluent Asian and other unscrupulous consumers.
Encouraging the proliferation of game animals results in their impacting native vegetation and other wildlife. The rapid increase of deer, rabbits, Canadian geese, and mentioned wild turkeys has been encouraged by hunting agencies and through current agricultural practices of leaving more unharvested grain in the fields. Deer are now a major problem in both rural and urban America, where they feast on crops and ornamental shrubbery and flowers; they far outnumber their ancestors at the time of Columbus' arrival to these shores. Wild turkeys can act like a harvesting machine and denude the understory of valuable plants through their foraging methods. Wild geese are becoming opportunistic, failing to migrate when they have good pickings and milder climates. In part, sparsity of native predators (wolves, foxes, and wild cats) has resulted in wildlife imbalances.
Another animal and plant problem arises due to globalized trading in huge volumes, as well as popularity of species from other parts of the world. Nursery and commercial groups encourage exotic species that escape and become invasive; one such, Kudzu, covers over seven million acres of America's Southeast. Several weed varieties are very hard to eradicate and are crowding out the docile native species. Russian and oriental olives are used on coal-mined reclamation areas and spread about due to birds dropping the seeds. Some ecologists regard exotic and invasive species as one of the most serious environmental problems of this century.
Prayer: Lord, help us become true protectors of wildlife.
February 5, 2015 Drowning Out Mourning Dove Sounds
The season of glad songs has come, the cooing of the turtledove is heard in our land. (The Song of Songs 2:12)
Nature is a marvelous teacher, and the gentlest creatures have very special roles -- if we are willing to listen. A sound, coming somewhat early in the year, calls to the core of our collective souls. It is the sound of the mourning dove, our commonest species in America (Zenaida macroura). The cooing we hear distinctly in February in these parts is the harbinger of spring, for when it starts we know Earth is awakening, sap is rising, and tree buds are swelling ever so minutely. The peaceful dove calls us from winter's slumber to come alive, to cultivate soil, and to bring God's blessings to full bloom through the work of our hands. The humble dove gives the first soft sounds, but discordant noises may block our hearing their soft-spoken message.
Actually, the sound of cow bells and church bells in more serene days have given way to railroad rumble, auto horns, revved motorcycles, and airplanes overhead, hair dryers and vacuum sweepers, loud music from the boom box and the all-invasive blaring television, paging systems and loudspeakers, jackhammers and earth movers, snow-removal trucks and blowers, and voices raised in order to be heard. Why should discordant sound abound except that we as communities allow it to happen? While our quiet space diminishes, individual silent victims lapse into utter intimidation; and our inaction speaks a message as well.
I always thought our rural life was somewhat quiet, only in comparison with the urban congestion I experienced on my visits and stays in big cities. However, my brother Charlie recalled for me the reality of our youthful farm noise pollution. Our hammer mill that cracked corn and wheat for hogs and cattle was extremely noisy; so were silage cutters and chain saws. What about the droning milking machine motors that could be heard miles away? And our own use of radios at such high volumes? Yes, I forgot. Rural areas became noisy places -- and we thought it was progress.
We need to confront noise pollution. Congestion and street noises follow supposed civilization's progress, and one finds traffic being both a blessing and curse as it is accompanied by sheer volume and squealing tires -- and the polluted air that carries sound. Congestion has an unnerving effect on drivers and passengers, as well as on residents near highways and streets. Yet few complain openly about deterioration of community life quality, loss of rest time, and disturbance of sleep patterns. How many acknowledge hearing loss from overly loud music? Unprotected ears are damaged and invasive noise pollution goes uncontrolled. The challenge to reduce noise grows.
Prayer: Lord, help us become aware that the noises we help generate affect the lives and health of our neighbors.
I am twittering like a swallow, I am moaning like a dove, my eyes turn to the heights, take care of me, be my safeguard. (Isaiah 38:14)
The challenge facing a world of increasing noise pollution is to control it in some fashion, or at least to guard ourselves from damaging our ears and nerves when the noise cannot be abated. This need for controls applies to our natural environment, our homes, and our rural, suburban, and urban communities. Scientific studies show that wildlife is affected by noise; birds near frequented trails are disturbed, especially through the noise from off-road vehicles; fish and sea mammals are harmed by water disturbances and sonic booms. Also, domestic livestock are stressed as many dairy farmers will testify; that is why classical music is often heard in cow barns to relieve bovine tensions. Not all noise pollution can be controlled by particular affected individuals, but communities can work together to bring positive results for the good of all.
The cause of noise pollution is not just devices, which often can be softened by acoustical engineering, but also by insensitivity of the user to people who desire quiet and rest. Curbing noise pollution, which is of its nature generally localized, involves community controls, for simply sound-proofing an area of our home is a good escape but little more; it doesn't address the widespread and growing noise pollution in congested areas. However, effective local sound barriers (natural ones with trees or shrubs or artificial barriers) are costly and often demand installation support from state, regional, or national agencies.
For our hyperactive culture, noise signifies busyness and connectedness. Consider a cell phone user next to you who is unconcerned that his conversation disturbs your silent space -- a true commons area. Noise necessitates more than escape to quieter places or the use of ear plugs. Our culture is slow at curbing noise-makers, even as noise reaches intolerable levels. Noise- makers consider their soundings with a sense of power. Here a challenge emerges: how do we compromise times and places of noise-making with time and places of silence for needed rest?
We must all concede that party-goers and youth at play need opportunities to "let off steam," to shout and laugh and squeal. Certain places could be declared quiet zones. Others should have times for glee and loud talk and times for sacred silence. One of the great accomplishments in a home or local community is to achieve a consensus on silent and sounding space or periods. Not everyone is blessed with the separation of acoustically-lined rooms or areas of escape to play musical instruments or sing.
Prayer: Lord, teach us that there is a time to be silent and a time to express ourselves through sound from voice or musical instruments -- and to honor those times and places.
Lasting color of Virginia creeper on honey locust tree.
February 7, 2015 Groaning Discord on Our Earth
Jim Sullivan and I took my parents on a trip in the spring of 1971 to western Kentucky to see the huge coal excavation equipment in Muhlenberg County. It was "down by the green river where paradise lay" in John Prine's song and my first encounter with a massive surface mining operation. Yes, it was a perfect setting for a moonscape movie and one could almost hear the once beautiful landscape groan.From there Jim and I went to Charleston, WV; we secured our first grant from Jay Rockefeller, then state treasurer, to investigate surface mining practices in KY, WV, and PA.
Discord is hard to face and experience and it tests the limits to our endurance. We look about and see individual acts of discord -- within families, communities, social groupings, global relations, and discord in Earth herself. If we are not careful we will overlook the major source of social discord: the chasm between the rich and the poor, heights of affluence in a world where many lack essential needs of life and a stable livelihood. A groan goes up that is often unnoticed. Certainly, domestic discord engages a compassionate person for it damages family fabric, neighborhoods, and small and large communities. Continued discord leads to gangs, radical groups, and beginnings of revolution. Acts of terrorism such as the 2001 World Trade Center attack and the ISIS movement in Syria/Iraq make us aware of unresolved tensions.
Starting with the 1970 Earth Day, many of us became sensitive to the wounded Earth and endangered creatures. When we listen, we hear Earth groaning, hills being torn apart by earth-movers and blasting, species becoming extinct, and the air and water being polluted. Our Earth is in mourning. Psalm 96 says, Let the heavens be glad, let Earth rejoice, let the sea thunder and all that it holds. If a happy Earth can express itself joyfully, so can a troubled one lament; we, as realists, are called to see and hear. When we cause Earth's degradation either by action or by neglect to make protective regulations, we allow a "sacrilege" to the extended "Holy Land" to continue. Addressing the discordant notes enables us to resume a concordance of praise to the Almighty.
Exposition of this environmental discord distinctly sounded in the 1960s in such books as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Ralph Nader's Unsafe at any Speed. By 1970, at the start of environmental activism I was convinced that this discord would be short-lived and would be corrected through proper and widespread exposition and governmental corrective measures within our accepted democratic process. Culprits would be punished and an awakened government rise to protect our commons of air and water. We were naive when worst case offenses were halted (i.e., getting lead out of gasoline or excess mercury out of waterways), to think Earth would soon be healed through conversion to a renewable energy economy. However, we gradually learned that environmental degradation could not be overcome by information alone; it requires a concerned public's willingness to enforce effective regulation.
I was once attacked for speaking of "the sin of affluence" by someone catering to wealthy supporters who said the "Church" should attend to the needs of affluent people who are decisionmakers. But I recalled that it is difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Our primary attention is those lacking essential necessities, not the wealthy who consume so much of the world's resources. Affluence fosters the inability to see others in need, an insensitivity resulting from possession of excessive material comforts. In Matthew 25 the Lord passes judgment on those who either see or don't see the hungry, thirsty, and naked.
Public wealth is not an evil in itself, provided it is controlled by citizens and not by a privileged few. Primogeniture (eldest son inheriting father's estate) was addressed by the U.S. Northwest Ordinance of 1787 saying that estates of proprietors dying intestate were to be divided among the children and their descendants, not first-born males as in European traditions. The American founders attacked Feudalism, but is it returning today?
Wealth can overlook sharing, infiltrate democratic process, and unduly influence lawmakers through campaign contributions. Wealth mixed with political power destroys democracy, fortifies itself with sophisticated communications and media, moves money from place to place with electronic ease, favors friends in high places, and extends corporate control over ever larger numbers of people. The great divide between the powerfully affluent and the poor widens since the turn of the century. The affluent are mesmerized with what they have acquired -- but they are blinded to their inherently unsafe and insecure possessions: police, security guards, and military give time and lives to secure wealth.
The affluent person's soft life weakens the will's ability to say "no." This form of discordance is often overlooked by neo-liberals who think affluence is a viable option. Environmentalists find it easier to point to corporate culprits who use false advertising practices and other promotional devices to enhance their economic power; certainly this exposure must be made. However, we must attempt to tackle the mandate to simplify our lives, even when countercultural. An economy based on consumer products encourages a false goal of expanded materialism.
This System must be changed ASAP. Enough is enough, and resources, including an ability to guard privileges, are limited. Why guard the status quo with the underlying pressure of continued wealth expansion by Big Fossil Energy and its banking accomplices. A deceptive silence occurs when prophetic voices are toned down by the economically powerful. These say, "Do not question prevailing capitalism that will always be with us." "Let charity allay our conscience." "The System can be tweaked." "Tolerate simplicity of lifestyle but let others consume more." Such language weakens our cherished democratic process and we must hear the groaning.
Prayer: Lord, allow us to hear Earth's discord and still have
the presence of mind to help bring about meaningful change.
February 8, 2015Coupling Job's Trials and Global Depression
Swifter than a weaver's shuttle my days have passed, and vanished leaving no hope behind. (Job 7:6)
Job struggles with his faith and his unfortunate situation. In a real sense his struggle has implications for us and is ever so timely. Job is frank and faces his depression and that he cannot rise alone; he turns to God in his experienced misery. He is a person of courage who does not deny his condition, nor seek to escape through other distractions. Job is persistent and in many ways grows ever deeper as he reflects over time. With God's grace at work, Job discovers more to life, and he is willing to search for the more. He sees troubles as they are and does not flinch. How do we respond to our current individual or local hardships?
You know your individual and communal troubles better than anyone; however, with help of others we discover strength in our solidarity and mutual compassion. In reading the whole Book of Job we find an ancient experience present today and with much the same anguish. We gain the courage to face reality as a gift from God. Ebola is dangerous; ISIS is a real threat to human civilization, and, most importantly, climate change is of human causation and must be addressed forthrightly. We see each as a challenge to our own faith and willpower to make needed changes in society. We may err on the side of caution, but our opportunities are fleeting, and so we turn to God, our rock of security, for assistance. We simply cannot allow the affluent to continue in profit-making ventures while being willing to cripple a planet severely.
A million homilies and sermons may focus on different aspects of Job's problems, but the experiences we face are similar to his. No one enjoys being countercultural, but this is called for in these prophetic times. Job's story applies to our political system as well as to our individual lives. Changes are demanded on a global level and yet we falter in doing our part to bring this about. The darkness of warfare, epidemic, drugs, and other issues haunt us and we wonder what will come next. And we thank God for the privilege to live and work in these uncertain times.
In the silence of our heart we face our individual trials and in that moment of helplessness turn to God for help. God becomes our companion and we accept that we are people distracted by a million little problems. We need to create the silent space and time in our hearts so we can reflect on our role in the world around us. Silence of the heart allows us to listen with our entire being. Jesus took time to pray, he saw the need, and he implored the Father for help. We too must retreat at times to our inner self and listen for the voice of the Spirit with the courage to do what must be done here and now.
Prayer: Lord, give us the grace to find meaning in the midst of troubles. Help others, especially our neighbors and world leaders, do the same and to address the current challenges.
February 9, 2015 Tasting Effects of Water Contamination
The second angel blew his trumpet, and it was as though a great mountain, all on fire, had been dropped into the sea; a third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living things in the sea were killed, and a third of all the ships were destroyed. (Revelation 8:8-9)
During the Second World War we raised extra acreage of tobacco for "the war effort." On hot late spring days while working, we would go and drink from local wet weather springs, which would cease during dryer parts of the year. How good was the taste of that cool water to the sweaty farm hand! However today, because of fear of aquifer contamination with giardia, I would hesitate to do this in those very locations.
We all need water in reasonable quantity and good quality. I recall a photo of dead elephants in a drought-stricken Zimbabwe wildlife reserve near dried up watering holes. The government of that impoverished land could not secure the fuel needed to run water pumps to replenish the water holes for these mammals requiring fifty gallons each animal per day. The amount of potable or non-salty drinkable water is only a fraction of the total quantity of water on this planet, and much of that is inaccessible to humans and thirsty creatures. Finding accessible water of sufficient quality for essential needs is becoming a growing problem for many people, especially in the U.S. West suffering from persistent droughts. Climate change worsens this situation.
Water contamination is a major problem and is now acerbated by the recent practice of fracking for natural gas and oil. Emitted chemicals from fracking solutions, plus others found in industrial or agricultural pesticide runoff, contaminate waterways and many of these do not biodegrade easily. The dumping of sewage in streams and rivers and the fanciful hope that it will disappear is disaster, for dilution is not the solution to pollution. Sewage is a major problem in many parts of the world and only worsens when people acquire more flush toilets, thus using far larger quantities of water and dumping the resulting waste where complaints are muffled. And it is costly in resources to return this contaminated liquid to the usable water supply.
Here in Appalachia, the poor have used "straight pipes" leading to waterways and consider it a solution only until the health authorities get wind of the practice. Then comes the expensive septic systems, which are problematic where land space is scarce. These same authorities often dislike the perfectly safe dry composting toilet option (nature's way) that does not receive favor from institutionalized regulators even under ideal conditions. With half of the domestic water use coming from the bathroom, one can predict our water shortages will get worse.
Prayer: Lord, inspire us to find ways to furnish the thirsty a proper supply of quality water and to conserve what we have.
Appalachian stream in warmer weather. Wartburg, TN.
February 10, 2015 Declaring the Right to Potable Water
Drink the water from your own cistern, fresh water from your own well. (Proverbs 5:15)
All have a right to good drinking water, but that is being threatened when privatized water supplies price this essential to life beyond human means. Water is part of the commons! Availability of good quality drinking water is a growing problem throughout the world and especially in mega-cities such as Mexico City, Lagos, and Cairo. Hopefully, water is an essential need that ought to be met close at hand, but that is not always possible when utilities reach out to distant supplies. Restrictions emerge needed to curb potable water supplies being used to wash cars, water lawns of non-native grass, and to fill swimming pools.
Agricultural irrigation makes heavier demands on fresh water than do suburban homes occupying a comparable area. Traditional water purification methods are often unable to remove complex chemicals such as steroids and medicines from current recycled water supplies. Untreated human and animal wastes are affecting lakes and streams throughout the world; ocean fish are being overharvested and yields are falling for many species. Contaminated or filled-in wetlands threaten the formerly rich breeding grounds of much wildlife. Water problems persist.
From time immemorial, people have suffered from water-related diseases such as malaria and cholera. Some water-borne diseases are controlled by medicine and water purification methods, but about one billion people still have unsafe drinking water. Even boiling water is difficult for the very poor who lack accessible fuel beyond what is needed for basic cooking. Domestic solar distilling units are currently too expensive -- but such community units could be useful with governmental support. Some people do not realize the degree of water contamination and resort to slaking their thirst with non-potable water containing parasites and water-borne diseases. New studies suggest that running water through multiple layers of clean cotton cloth will remove most harmful bacteria, but even such simple practices can be difficult.
Technologies exist for purifying water on a larger scale, such as through ultraviolet light or use of chlorine or ozone. Some of these highly effective methods are expensive and are not available in urban slums and rural areas where needs are urgent. Water purification does not have priority in developing countries where food insecurity is not yet addressed. Sanitary systems (dry composting toilets and artificial wetlands), which preserve drinking water from contamination, could be built at low cost but these require willing domestic managers. Meeting local water needs from drilling demands finances and technical know-how. Building safe cisterns for rainwater is a practical solution, though proper maintenance is required to ensure purity from outside contaminants.
Prayer: Lord, teach us concern about our thirsty neighbors.
February 11, 2015 Looming Disturbances in the Atmosphere
When you see a cloud looming up in the west you say at once that rain is coming, and so it is. And when the wind is from the south you say it will be hot, and it is. (Luke 12: 54-55)
The parish priest at Belle, West Virginia, asked us to come and document the white stuff that was floating from a nearby factory and settling on vehicles and lawns. It contaminated the air and some of his parishioners were complaining about breathing problems. We reported the problem to state and federal authorities, for the emissions were harmful to residents.
We need to read the signs of the times. Clean air, our planet's greatest treasure, is being threatened by the captains of industry who want to seize an essential part of the commons. At the start of the industrial revolution two centuries ago, a smoking factory chimney was the sign of a worker's ability to bring home a pay check. Today these same smokestacks are reminders of air pollution and accompanying respiratory diseases. We recall the sickness and death that struck with the great smog of Donora, Pennsylvania and London, England, in the aftermath of the Second World War. Fresh air, that most basic of commons, has been co-opted by industrialists in a similar way as the removal of sheep pasture commons in 17th and 18th century England by landlords and barons. It is a modern form of enclosure of the commons.
Some gases, such as sulfur oxides from coal-burning, foul air more severely than soot and their odors betray them. Other fossil fuel emitted nitrogen oxides and ozone are harmful and when mixed with atmospheric humidity form acidic compounds; these contaminate rain making it acidic and harmful to both flora and fauna, and especially to higher elevation forests. Ozone depletion around the North and South Poles has resulted in attack on protective upper levels of atmospheric ozone (toxic in high concentration in urban streets). Absence of this protective ozone allows harmful ultraviolet rays to enter the atmosphere in amounts sufficient to harm both human beings and other creatures. Culprits include certain Freons found in industrial and domestic uses, but these are being phased out in many countries.
Burning fossil fuels leads to a build-up of carbon dioxide, a necessary component in photosynthesis; yet in large quantities the atmospheric carbon dioxide has the same effect that occurs in a greenhouse, where light energy is converted into heat and retained and heats the place. Many know that fossil fuels are the culprit but fewer know that a plentiful addition of fracked natural gas (with leakage of highly potent methane) is only increasing more rapidly the threatening human-caused climate changing situation. Earth warms, glaciers melt, ocean levels rise, and currents are affected as water temperatures rise. Don't tinker with nature!
Prayer: Lord, help us to effect changes needed to reduce climate change severity and move to a renewable energy economy.
The Earth Healing team participates in People's Climate March, 2014.
February 12, 2015 Benefitting from the People's Climate March
I was so proud of my grand nieces Anna and Mary Clair for holding our Earth Healing sign aloft for three miles of marching in September in New York City. The spirit of the battles I have fought since attending marches with M.L. King present in 1968 is not dormant; it arises again and is intensified on this major climate changing issue. A legacy will not be lost, thank God.
On Abraham Lincoln's Birthday it is an opportune time to see that we must bite the bullet of urgency and speak out against damage to our atmosphere and entire planet. We cannot stand idly by but must show our public dismay and willingness to put our bodies on the line to bring about needed change to save our wounded Earth. Some 400,000 of us attended the People's Climate March on September 21, 2014 (which EH cosponsored). What this did for the marchers was startling. People felt the presence of young and old, of the whites and those of color, of diversity of organizations and committed individuals, all joined in a single serious effort. Follow through is of course problematic, but it is evident that the status quo is being challenged, for people are committed to change and it will come inevitably. But will it come soon enough?
Reality stares us in the face. A world attempts in little ways to try to halt the closing window of opportunity before the amount of carbon dioxide and methane in the environment exceeds levels when global warming of above two degrees limits will be impossible to halt. Small efforts are not enough; this must become a global crusade. Mechanisms will soon fall into place that will cause the permafrost of the Arctic regions to melt and release quantities of potent trapped methane; this will result in a feedback mechanism of further melting and further methane release -- at which the point of no return will be reached. James Lovelock, the author of the Gaia Theory of the Earth (the planet is a living system involving the interaction of life forms with environment), predicted big trouble ahead if we mess too much with our fragile living Earth. This prediction is shared by ninety-seven percent of global climate change experts as well as all major international and national scientific organizations.
The difficulty is to arouse people who are occupied with material pursuits to see what is coming if we allow present conditions to continue unabated. The pressure to raise the consumer culture to new levels of consumption is a formula for disaster; yet this is the System at work full tilt, bent on drawing consumer attention to the latest electronic device. Catastrophe is nearing! We are not Chicken Littles proclaiming the sky is falling and running about pulling our hair. Rather, we must be deliberate and cool-headed about what must be done. We cannot afford to panic, but march and work together to change the present situation. Final catastrophe is not inevitable if we act now.
Prayer: Lord, realism calls us to be humble and work
with deliberate speed in addressing the climate change issue.
February 13, 2015 Extending Compassion to Ebola Victims I was afraid of heights when straddling rails in barns. My most vivid meditation on hell was climbing thirty feet in a dusty tobacco barn on a late summer afternoon with the sun beating down on a tin roof overhead. It was dusty, sweaty, and distracting as wasps zoomed about. The art was to balance feet on rails (loose in neighbor's barns but not our own), all the while hanging sticks filled with freshly cut tobacco stalks for drying. I imagined a stinging wasp forcing me to jump and lose my balance -- and fall. My vivid imagination would get the best of me and so to avoid the barn I became an ace tobacco cutter and stayed on firm ground in the harvest field.
Over the centuries, vivid descriptions of pains of eternal hell filled the works of Dante and others who touched the imaginations of believers. Why now so few words on hell? Yes, I believe there is such a state of hell but dare not judge who and how many will be burning with eternal fires. To me, hell has been a personal condition, namely like dodging wasps in a hot tobacco barn. Scarcity of descriptive words did not detour me from experiencing hell in certain types of life situations.
At various times preachers have turned on the fear spigot and mesmerized listeners through emotional sermons, an avalanche of verbal emotion. Hellish descriptions of eternal flames and devils with pitchforks are not in vogue today and are regarded as images of an outmoded revivalism. Far better it is to capture the imagination by the infinite merciful God calling us to see squarely the hellish conditions of our neighbors suffering from war, rape, Ebola, drugs, and many forms of poverty. For those with the spiritual fortitude to look out and feel others' sufferings, current victims enduring hellish conditions emerge.
Hell as a condition has a location in the squalor of a slum, the isolated senior's citizen home, the despair of the addicted, the oozing toxic waste near where children are playing, the drought-stricken area where wildlife is dying, the migrant camp, and the dying Ebola victim where no one but people in space suits will draw near and even extend a padded hand. Fear of contamination at the moment when compassion is most needed calls down upon us the most basic human touch that is lacking for these epidemic victims. How can one anoint a sick person with oil and do so without touching them? Basic human healing is forbidden.
We read about how in the Black Death period of the 14th century some of the most dedicated health workers were killed due to giving service. Are those scenes being repeated today with the global Ebola epidemic? This suddenly brings hell to this Earth and we are haunted by being helpless in the face of such episodes.
Prayer: Lord, give us a deepening sense of compassion so that we experience courageously some of the sufferings of victims of epidemics and wars afflicting our world at this time.
February 14, 2015 Facing Catastrophes with Loving Hearts
Valentine's Day is a time to step back from this troubled world and show special attention to loved ones through gifts and poetic expressions. We always need a break, and these moments of special notice are deeply appreciated by all. We turn from community concerns to the individuals who make our lives so sustaining. Yes, true love can be tender and tough at the same time, a bouquet of flowers or box of candy and a little more self examination of how we are all too often a tough guy. We now are reminded that harsh words and threats do not bring on changes needed to speak for voiceless creatures and future generations. We must have a touch of gentleness to our tone. "We must afflict the comfortable but today comfort the afflicted."
Certain natural catastrophes such as pestilence, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis are disturbing issues and we can only take so many of them before attempting to escape. All who can, will get out of a future Katrina hurricane and Sandy episode. Organized response may include stockpiled emergency supplies, quick response teams, quarantining off affected areas, and work on vaccines and drugs. In isolating Ebola victims, volunteers on returning to the U.S. from Africa caused much consternation to surface by being quarantined after working in dangerous areas. Concerned Governors claimed this was for the safety of the rest of the population, but compassion says to allow each to monitor themselves
at their own home setting.
Leaders must both deal with excessive fear of contagion and still be grateful to those who risk their lives in caregiving in such dangerous zones. A balance is called for; those responsible want to present a face of strictness and yet leniency; expressing both is somewhat difficult in troubling times. As of this writing Ebola has no easy cure and is highly contagious through direct contact with a victim's body fluids. Ebola defies the medical record of conquest -- though it will undoubtedly be dealt with successfully in due time. Part of the longer-range problem is that tropical diseases, of which this is one, have been grossly underfunded in favor of those closer to where funding sources are located. For funders, Africa and its afflictions seem far away.
A balanced eco-spiritual standpoint is to squarely face the disasters facing our world today. They may be naturally generated such as climate change, or arise and are intensified by human practices such as in Ebola afflicted places. Dealing with these challenges requires a loving and compassionate heart. Yes, the tasks facing us are immense; this requires people who routinely show kindness and give flowers on special occasions. We have got to have a heart to go with our working hands and calculating head. We know that we have the company of a loving God to see us through disasters. Encompassing love is celebrated today.
Prayer: Lord, let your love fill our hearts and help us face troubled conditions knowing that ultimate victory will come.
An overwintering nest, to be occupied again in springtime.
February 15, 2015Reflecting on Miracles and Cures
There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. Albert Einstein
In today's Gospel reading (Mark 1:40-45) Jesus heals the leper. The leper says simply, If you want to you can cure me. Jesus responds as we would expect, "Of course I want to! Be cured!" A miracle occurs. Jesus tells the ex-leper to go show himself to the temple priests for the declaration of being clean. We find several revealing characteristics of Jesus in this and other healing events: he has ongoing compassion for others, especially those afflicted in some way; he sees an opportunity to teach through curing; he performs the miracle; he goes out of his way and touches the leper, something that is not always regarded as proper in his world where one could be easily contaminated.
People look for miracles, especially when afflicted in some manner. They trust the caregiver to do the best they can. It is very difficult seeing caregivers dressed in forbidding-looking safety gear treating Ebola victims. Many of these in protective gear are still persons of compassion who respond in the manner of Jesus, "Of course we want to! Be cured." To be cured takes effort, proper procedures, and even miracles for those of faith -- though every cure has something miraculous about it. To be cured takes faith, as the words of the Sacrament of Anointing expresses. Many of the modern medical technologies and substances are the fruit of dedicated labor and the miracle of perseverance and research, all flowing from faith that people can regain health.
Compromise and rationing may be necessary in an effort to get more care to the greater numbers of ill persons. It sounds reasonable, and certainly a limited amount of rationed care is necessary if medical resources are finite -- but aren't they to be more generously funded and available? However, to think of the numbers of medically trained people who migrated from developing lands in need to more affluent countries is quite disturbing. Resource short Africa has about half of its personnel working in the developed world. Efforts to halt the spread of Ebola by use of U.S. and other military units is a hopeful sign that security now directly targeted to military hardware and operations will be transformed into global health security.
Health personnel are theoretically plentiful; afflicted people are actually present; many effective medical drugs are becoming available; and some such as forms of prevention through vaccination, are reaching much of the world thanks to WHO. By diverting ten percent of the world's one-and-a-half-trillion dollar military budget would yield 150 billion for basic health needs for all people who have a right to adequate health. A miracle!
Prayer: Lord, give us this day the resources needed to bring
quality health care to all, especially the neglected poor.
February 16, 2015 Needing Redemption Individually and Collectively
We experience wrongdoing to our Earth: damage to plants and animals, through destruction of habitat, invasion of exotic species, and noise, water, and air pollution. Though we take preventive measures, we also need outside or divine assistance. Earth, Holy Ground, is desecrated by the insensitive and greedy. Let us set aside some period for reflection and see that this is a favorable time for personal and community change. We approach Ash Wednesday in two days as people in need of renewal: we count and ask pardon for our personal misdeeds; we listen to the call for silence and repentance; we confront temptations to favorite allurements; and we are sensitive to people in need of our help.
As individuals, we stumble and fall from grace, but divine mercy calls us back through purifying practices to become better healers of Earth. We recall that we must work as a team, for the work ahead is formidable and we cannot act alone. We take on ourselves part of the blame whether personal or in the name of a faulting community. We realize our faults divide people, irritate them, and drive them away. With grace we face a world in need and that is difficult enough. We publicly acknowledge that our spiritual journey involves taking responsibility for social harm done through misdeeds -- by ourselves or others. Through this coming to know ourselves we are ready to be renewers of Earth.
As communities, we can fail in our collective efforts to make the environment a better place. Nothing stands out more than the way we treat so-called "waste" or discarded materials, since all of God's creation is good. Waste is a form of infidelity, a lack of gratitude for gifts given. By allowing litter to accumulate and sending materials to landfills, we mar God's beautiful creation. Visible pollution is disharmony that damages a community's integrity. Lax enforcement of regulations has been coupled with corporate practices of introducing non-returnables -- a profitable but irresponsible practice. Elizabeth Dodson Gray, a nuclear power critic, says the rapid rise of the nuclear power industry in the 1960s was achieved by engineers "who never change diapers." If they do, they would recognize nuclear waste as a problem that would bedevil the world for a long time. Waste signifies collective irresponsibility and was introduced without considering results.
We must come to terms with our past so that we can look ahead to the future. Realizing that we are at fault, we ask God's pardon, so as to become better healers of our wounded Earth. An authentic eco-spirituality demands that we address our unsolved issues and not simply pass the blame to another as though absolved by not being the personal culprit. Collective attribution has a role to play in regenerating a sense of gratitude and compassion. We are then prepared for the graces flowing from the sacrifice of Christ as redeemer for us all, individually and globally.
Prayer: Lord, forgive us for our misdeeds and help us to collectively move to better practices in using our gifts.
February 17, 2015 Shrove Tuesday: Stumbling When Not Looking
With sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread, until you return to the soil, as you were taken from it. For dust you are and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:19)
I had a number of spills in my biking career, but the most memorable occurred in Austin when doing research at the University of Texas. It happened in a flash. I was one moment riding merrily and the next I was sprawled over the hood of a car and slipping down to the dusty street. I was knocked down by a car braking suddenly at an intersection when the driver, perhaps fully consumed with an examination or paper to be finished, simply didn't see me, as can happen when autos and bikes mix. There were bruises but no breaks, thank heavens! It took a number of weeks for the skin on legs and arms to recover, but it always made me more aware that we can stumble and fall.
Personal sin is when one misses the mark. Social sin includes a failure of human beings to take care of creation; this is a fall from grace, from the willingness to care for other creatures as well as ourselves. Sin, whether personal or social, affects all of creation in some way as well. Our freedom advances the evolving of the Kingdom of God when used properly, and it retards that progress when misused. However, good action whether by individuals or groups involves the repairing of what has been damaged.
The human race experienced its fall from grace at the Garden of Eden, at the dispersal at Babel, and during the Babylonian Captivity. All the king's horses and men could not put the shattered egg together again, as the saying goes. Inherently we are burdened by the collective fall from grace of all human beings, and yet in the redemption of Christ we have the initiation of the process of healing and putting things together again. Falls come with suddenness whether individual or those of crumbling empires and kingdoms. Christians feel responsible for the collective damage that brings on such changes.
The contrast between the beauty of primitive creation and the reality of pain and toil needed to repair damage is apparent to the eyes of those responsible. As we prepare for Ash Wednesday tomorrow, and spend a brief moment in celebration before austerity begins, we can say in all sincerity, "Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation." We must acknowledge our finitude, our weaknesses, and our collective falls. We may be quick to blame others but are called to assume some of it ourselves.The first shoe falls and we recognize our misdeeds, but we then listen for the second shoe of aftermath, the social dysfunction, the lingering results of wrongdoing. We love recognition, but again see that notoriety is one side of the coin, which includes shortfalls which may come back to haunt us and our society. Misdeed and aftermath go hand-in-hand and in their place cooperative renewal must occur.
Prayer: Lord, help us to prepare for the Lenten season.
February 18, 2015Ash Wednesday and Need for Salvation
For he says: 'At the favorable time, I have listened to you; on the day of salvation I came to your help.'Well, now is the favorable time; this is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:2)
On Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent we reflect on the condition of our world and what we can do about it. Now is that favorable time to begin to take matters into our hands with God's help. We know from the above passage of Scripture that the Lord is near and we sense the time is right. Here is a holy time and place when and where a challenge awaits us as stewards of the treasures of Earth, seen as gifts to be shared in common. We are aware that our abilities are limited and our lives but brief candles, our span of time narrowing. The ashes are a powerful reminder to welcome repentance and resolve to renew our lives.
Jesus is the redeemer of all and we affirm this. He is the beginning of our salvation, for only he, Jesus, redeems. However, we can enter into the salvation process of history. First, we are to undergo renewal and a fresh beginning of the process of preparing ourselves to be good stewards. That takes a certain amount of self-denial and fasting, conditions to help us live out this season. Lent is a time of confession of faults and resolution to live a better life in the coming years. This is the start of the rest of our journey to personal salvation, but it is not a road traveled by us alone. We do have the Lord as companion.
Going one step further, we see the social dimensions of stewardship that include a fragile planet in deep need of responsible action on the part of all. Renewal must be a global enterprise. We must abandon the fossil fuel economy and take on renewable energy sources, a choice where renewal is part of the very nature of substances that move us forward. Social renewal includes changing wasteful practices (no matter what energy source is chosen) and accepting a simple lifestyle. We must accept more conservative ways and listen to lessons of appropriate technology, taste the good effects of less affluence, smell a new and refreshing air, and touch the soil through growing our gardens.
We are ashes and are humble, being related to humus or soil. We enter into God's creative act by designing a new system that is non-competitive, non-profit, non-self-interested. "I" can be transposed starting this Lent into a "we" involving a community of believers. Through the acceptance of ashes we pass from the old order to a new one. Just as ashes can be a garden fertilizer for future productive plants, so our being marked by ashes can help enliven the world around us a means of healing. If we are blessed with humus or humble ashes, we need to extend that blessing to others. Ashes are a start -- a fresh beginning for a troubled world in desperate need of salvation.
Prayer: Lord, help us see the favorable time before us and to
resolve to make the best of this diminishing span.
A richly-textured assemblage of lichen. (*Photo by Sally Ramsdell)
February 19, 2015Human Rights and China's Move to Freedom
Happy Chinese New Year! So it is the "year of the sheep," but what does that say? During 2014, a student "occupy" movement working towards democracy occurred in Hong Kong in anticipation of choosing new leadership in the 2017 elections. Democratic process appears to be on the march and really it cannot be permanently suppressed; the thrust is to inevitable fulfillment. But is it infallibly a wave of the future? Is it China's choosing? Yes, this is China's century and all of us are to be part in seeing that the process of liberation and democratic development in that vast land be done with compassion and concern. Americans love Chinese food, culture, and work ethic. Is their undemocratic system the best? In truth we pause, for we don't have all the answers.
Our Chinese connections could take on a serious and critical tone because they involve what we sincerely hope China becomes. Unfortunately the materialism of the West has been accepted by China as has much of our technology. To be honest, democracy is not fully attained anywhere whether East or West, and authentic advancement occurs when we work together to grow in our collective global solidarity. We are all on the road though some of us have more participative governance practices than others -- and yet our own government is paralyzed at this moment. No doubt, present day China is ruled by an authoritarian Communist hierarchy with all supreme power at the top and underlings faithfully obey.
Western democracy is a fragile creature and without vigilance it can be lost. Is not the fear of many of us that democracy is being lost due to tolerating the vast inequality of wealth and the vast political influence of those with money? Note the recent election and the failure of the U.S. Senate to vote for an amendment to the Constitution dealing with political finances and the removal of big money from election campaigns.
Today, China seeks to be accepted in the world community with its drive to become the world's commercial power. However, China's march to greatness includes exploitation of immense amounts of global resources and resulting environmental pollution. Sparsely settled territories next to this land teeming with 1.3 billion Chinese are awfully tempting, whether that be Siberia or Tibet each with about seven million people or Mongolia with fewer still. China is commercially on the march in Asia and in Africa and Latin America as well. China recently opened a first rail link to Tibet and this is now bringing in a flood of Han immigrants who are changing the face of Tibet's capital and surrounding regions. Given time and a systematic educational program, the young of Tibet will take on Chinese ways, culture and aspirations. Change is coming. Let's pray that in the movement to greatness China will learn to tolerate the religious beliefs of all its citizens and allow a freedom that is so needed there and throughout the world.
Prayer: Lord, allow us to work with Chinese people in their journey to gain political, social, and economic freedom.
February 20, 2015 Caring for Needs Due to Inequality
The virtuous will say to him in reply, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you? (Matthew 25: 37-39)
In the aftermath of the Great Depression we had little spending money, hardly ever more than a single nickel or a dime, never a jingle in our pockets. At school some had larger allowances for sweets. That desire for extra food became my preoccupation before getting off the school bus and finding a homemade snack ready in the kitchen. Mama knew we were hungry and always prepared for us. Would that we be so sensitive to others.
Some 90% of new wealth in our country goes to the top 5% of the people. To get them to share means we must address inequality and serve the hungry, thirsty, naked, and homeless. Should our efforts be to make the wealthy voluntarily share the common wealth? We will hardly be successful in a selfish age. When we see our limitations we ponder whether to cleanse the affluent temple. We look to Jesus who heals the sick, feeds the multitudes, and tells the people to give Jairus' little daughter something to eat. Jesus will say to us on Judgment Day, "You fed me" or "you didn't feed me," and how are we as citizens of a democracy going to respond?
* Feeding the hungry include those going to bed hungry or those with pot-bellies and discolored hair. Over one billion undernourished people reside on this planet, and alleviating that condition requires massive international efforts as well as ensuring that small farmers have adequate resources to withstand the pressures of global corporate agricultural operations. * Clothing the naked is to clothe Jesus; he was born and wrapped in swaddling clothes in a borrowed manger, and his dead body lay in borrowed cloth in a borrowed tomb. Many in schools, workplace, and church find lack of clothes somewhat disconcerting. Others empty their wardrobes of the out of fashion clothes and think themselves virtuous. Effecting living wages for all is a better approach than passing out second-hand clothing. * Housing the homeless includes ministering to Palestinian refugees, American homeless sleeping under bridges, or Brazilian families living in tar shacks. Homeless people get urban park benches and grates or, if lucky, homeless shelters; one billion people live in inadequate housing and an equal number need home improvements for quality of life. They lack basic resources to construct their residences, the result of growing inequality. * Curing the sick involves addressing the needs of AIDS and now more recently Ebola epidemic victims. Sending of the U.S. military to construct treatment centers is a movement in the right direction, for health security is truly global security. All our global brothers and sisters deserve quality health care and we are able to help furnish it from our surplus resources.
Prayer: Lord, inspire us to give justice to those in need.
And am I not to feel sorry for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals. (Jonah 4:11)
I always had a certain affinity for bovines, from calves to milk cows, who universally like to be scratched between the ears. However, I would kill a wasp at a wink or participate in the hog killing event with a certain glee. But compassion crept in more over the years. I once confessed to killing a bird with a clod. The good confessor said -- "with a what?" I said "with a dirt clod," for our clay soil could become as hard as rock in the hot summer. I think I heard him laugh.
Through compassion we become sensitive to the hungry, thirsty, naked, and homeless and enter their world of need. Their need warms our hearts and, in helping them, they help us become more generous and thankful for what we have to share. Performing works of mercy takes time, energy, and attention, and that is exhausting. In contrast, when people overlook the hungry, thirsty, and homeless, they show insensitivity caused by affluence and material greed; they do not see, hear, or feel another's need. Sins of omission overwhelm them and become their undoing. They soon experience the isolation of lonely privilege, for affluence does not increase happiness as multiple surveys show.
For the compassionate Christian, happiness is found in the deeper Mystery of Love. Divine love does not deplete our horizons but enhances them. Love invites us to go beyond ourselves and to reach out to others, for we are not alone; we enter into God's infinite compassion. As we grow in compassion we become more godly and share in God's merciful ways shown in the actions of Christ among us. We are invited to plunge into the infinite ocean of God's love. Compassion through love makes us constantly reach out to broader vistas of human and other creature's need in a universal embrace. Our arms grow longer so we can hug more broadly.
Through compassion, social justice becomes contagious. So does a more encompassing eco-justice that reaches to pets and domestic livestock, and then out to all Earth's creatures including "suffering" plant and animal species under threat of extinction. Compassion for animals is really not a modern western concept, nor one found only in Buddhism, Jainism, or other Eastern Religions. Many primitive people show compassion to wildlife (animals and plants) in a partnership manner, seeking forgiveness when harvesting and only taking as much of a plant species as needed. The Scriptural passage saying not to muzzle the oxen during threshing season (Deuteronomy 25:4) is an example of where an integral compassion extends beyond social justice to become an encompassing eco-justice. We co-suffer with others.
Prayer: Lord, teach us to always expand our compassion.
February 22, 2015 Resisting Tempting Allurements and Detours
Immediately afterwards, the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him. (Mark 1:12-13)
Temptations are part of the human condition. From Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 we read about Jesus' temptations -- to wealth, fame and power by turning stone into bread, flying off the parapet of the Temple, and falling down and adoring the Evil One. Jesus successfully overcomes temptations to worldly success through living a simple life, the ignominy of the cross, and obedience to the Divine Will. Mark's less detailed Gospel focuses more on temptations to omission than on evil deeds of commission. In turn, Jesus responds by appearing in Galilee proclaiming the good news immediately after John the Baptist's arrest. Jesus does not run from conflict but confronts it deliberately. Still, he is later tempted by Peter not to go up to Jerusalem and crucifixion.
We are never tempted beyond our powers. In prayer we turn to God for help to overcome our temptations, those we perceive and those we fail to see. Some temptations deal with the ready enticements that surround us in our present world: pride in our own accomplishments; coveting wealth and resources belonging to the commons and to future generations; lust for power and to satisfy bodily passions; anger over failure to achieve success; gluttony in a world of resource rich foods and drinks; envy over the success of others; and a sloth that makes us reluctant to do what has got to be done. Temptations we have; temptations we can overcome.
Of greater importance than the sins of weakness are those of omission or removing ourselves from the duty to act in this threatened and endangered world. We are tempted to:
* deny that trouble even exists and our part in bringing about a New Creation and especially that climate change is human caused;
* excuse ourselves from accepting the responsibility to follow Christ in the building of the Kingdom; and
* escape from the consequences lest we become involved in conditions that demand more radical sharing of what we regard as individually owned.
These omissions affect us when under pressure to act; we would like to distance ourselves. We are tempted to talk about others: "they" as other persons or institutions to blame or to effect change; we speak of "there" or some distant place where action needs to occur; and we introduce "then" either as lost opportunities in the past or those future times beyond our lifespan. On the other hand, WE are all called in unique ways to be agents of change; HERE is where we must act; and NOW is the chose moment, the time for accepting an opportunity to share and heal. More on the phases of omission in the next three days.
Prayer: Lord, lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil, for yours are the kingdom and the power and the glory.
We were performing an environmental resource assessment on some property near Knoxville, Tennessee when I asked the manager of an adjacent tennis court whether the scantily clothed tennis players have any difficulty spending so much time directly underneath high voltage powerlines going from a nearby powerplant to the Oak Ridge Laboratories. He looked at me and said in all seriousness, "There are no powerlines." Denial amid the sight and sound of humming high voltage wires stunned us -- but denial occurs in our world.
Denial is a common mode of avoiding reality. Those who deny may be overly optimistic and unable to come to terms with troubles, or they may lie to themselves one more time. To deny is to see a current situation as permanent, "Good times will never go away." We're faced with a major denial in our world today, for many do not believe that climate change is occurring or, if they accept it, they deny that it is humanly caused, or if they accept anthropogenic change, they say it is exaggerated. Furthermore, when they finally accept melting glaciers and the hottest months since records were kept, they deny that change is related to the capitalistic consumer economy. People steeped in the glory of constant material progress cannot face the expenditure of resources that has affected civilizations and now even our planet herself.
Part of the cause of climate change deniers is political ideology; part is a human habit of small denials in life that afflicts us: aging, waning energy, hair loss, overweight, addictive substance abuse, poor family relations, or failure to make right with God. A bumper sticker says, "Attacking my smoking habit may be dangerous to your health." Challenging one's denial could be fighting words, and so we let deniers alone and give up arguing with them. Often deniers prefer to congregate with others who reinforce their strange attitudes. Theirs is an artificial world of the supposed ongoing status quo. Also besides individuals, communities and social groups foster denials through false advertisements, inflated resumes, corporate and research progress reports, doctored financial records, and other major or minor cover-ups.
Affirmation is the opposite of denial. The Creator says an eternal "yes" to the goodness of Creation -- and that gift is given to all of us. When we show gratitude for gifts and share them with others in a global commons, we say "yes" to God. Whenever we celebrate, encourage others and perform charitable works of mercy, we say "yes." We hear Mary saying "yes" to being the Mother of the Savior. We affirm through acts of continual thanks a status of being true realists. Not all is perfect in this world, but amid situations we do not like, we still find some good. One puzzled person was listening to a popular writer's talk and asked him frankly what he really held; he responded in a facetious manner that he believed in "everything." Really! Is a universal affirmation the answer or rather a general affirmative attitude?
Prayer: Lord, help us face reality with courage and humility.
February 24, 2015 Excusing Ourselves from the Struggle
In the scroll of the book am I not commanded to obey your will?" (Psalm 40:8)
Excuses sometimes come when they are least expected or desired.At our Nature Center in 1987, we heard that Tommy, our land trust manager, had just been murdered. John, an assistant at our Center, was most needed at this key moment in our group's life. However, John said his constitution could not take such shocks; he politely excused himself, packed and abruptly departed for home in the deep South. Maybe his excuse was an inability to deal with his own Dad's death, but that was never fully explained. He thought he just had to go -- and that was an excuse that hurt us all.
Valid excuses -- We should not be hard on John, for some find reality too much to cope with at a given time. In fact, excuse may be a way in which certain people cope with difficult situations, which otherwise would cause a nervous breakdown. A legitimate excuse is acceptable from people who recognize their shortcomings and limitations; they prefer to show a certain humility (sometimes false) by getting out of the way and letting another with stronger backbone or greater experience handle the emergency. It's better than fainting or running away while giving critical aid.
However, if an excuse is a non-acceptance of responsibility, it's a different matter. If parents only give excuses for not controlling a wayward child or performing an act of tough love, we ask "Why don't they handle the child properly?" If we are approached for charitable giving, we could excuse ourselves and say we need our money for the proverbial rainy day. When someone asks us to help with a neighborhood program we could excuse ourselves, saying we have other business or being too old or "our ox is caught in a ditch." A creative mind can always find excuses.
Acceptance of responsibility is the opposite of excuse. Jesus takes up the burden of human wrongdoing in order to redeem us. He accepts the Father's will in the most profound form of an obedience that is better than sacrifice (I Samuel 15:22). By obeying God's will, we radically open ourselves to becoming faithful followers of the Lord. Jesus' obedience is the most profound return of everything given for he does so willingly by accepting a humble position out of obedience. Christians are called to follow with a sense of duty in a world of strife and uncertainty. We are expected to accept the divine call and obey God's will; tempted excuses must be weighed through prayer and discernment. An excuse is easier to make than a responsibility to take.
Note: The early Fathers of the Church took responding to essential needs quite seriously. If neighbors do not have sufficient food we could not receive the Lord in Communion worthily. In an age of Internet, a neighborhood is global and sharing Eucharist and sharing essentials go hand-in-hand.
Prayer: Lord, give us the will to overcome excuses.
February 25, 2015 Escaping to Trite or Harmful Allurements
Jake was a friend who was very active until he was married, but he simply couldn't share fully with his new wife. He became a changed individual and seemed to escape into the web of watching television all the time. Perhaps we think excessive TV is better than booze, or drugs, but TV watching may be failure to cope with life. Jake's marriage soon fell apart.
Allurements can be mild ones that simply consume time that is needed to perform necessary work or improve relationships with others. Again, like deniers and excusers, escapees are folks who cannot face the reality demanding confrontation at this time. Escapees can accept food that fattens or excessive substances that lead to addictive behavior. Must we be reminded of the terrible costs that afflict so many relatives, neighbors, peers and others? Getting the afflicted to accept treatment programs is a hurdle, but we could consider enlisting ex-addicts to help encourage them.
Part of the problem is that as a nation our people suffer from the effects of a blatant consumer culture that verges on addiction itself. Some admit we are addicted to oil -- and now natural gas -- and this leads to expanding climate change. National economic policies say consume, consume. Medicines are overdosed and publicly advertised; junk food is pervasive; alcohol is available; personal credit is easy, and monetary savings difficult. The four- trillion-dollar personal indebtedness of American consumers should sober us. Where is the power to say "no" to excessive consumption?
You don't cure an alcoholic by touring distilleries or by attending lectures on what alcohol does to the brain and liver. However, you may persuade this person to accompany an ex-addict to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Escape issues often involve lack of will power, which is eroded through affluence and a culture that regards it patriotic to consume more goods. Consumers think they require and deserve more material things (bigger house, electronic devices, etc.) because they have money or access to credit, and coaxing peers. This raises the disturbing question as to whether consumer escapees are addictive or whether they can be cured through rational means. Do they need to be regarded as "addicts," driven to spending sprees before holidays? Honing our response in rational arguments is weak; we need recourse to a Higher Power.
Involvement is the opposite of escape. While many of us are tempted to go our own way, Christians find in praying the Scriptures that Jesus involves himself by coming among us as a simple person; he accepts the afflicted, teaches the crowds, is sensitive to their hunger, confronts the Pharisees, drives the moneychangers from the Temple, and suffers and dies for us. We are also to become involved, whether as faithful activists or by offering personal afflictions for the suffering of our world.
Prayer: Lord, help us see our allurements and confront them.
February 26, 2015 Coupling Human Suffering and Creation's Groaning
From the beginning till now the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth; and not only creation, but all of us who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free.
(Romans 8: 22-23)
How do we respond to the desecration of creation and to injustice to the human family? We do not want to deny, excuse, or escape from either wounded people or wounded Earth, for to harm the Earth is to harm human communities. To be silent and allow Earth to suffer is to render injustice to all -- for we are connected and need to help each other in times of need.
As an Appalachian activist without academic training, the late Becky Simpson had a rather profound theological insight: "When the Earth is damaged, we work to stop the harm; when people suffer, we come to help them." And her life proved her words, through efforts to stop strip mining operations and flooding of her community, and through her family's directing hundreds of home repair and charitable projects in Harlan County, KY over the years. And this was done with no steady income outside of disability checks because Bobbie her husband was blinded in a work accident.
An eco-spirituality must face a troubled situation with two distinct parts: the earthly or physical dimension of damage and spiritual harm from lack of justice. Secular eco-spirituality so divides the issue that it focuses solely on the ecological damage with no reference to human causes or destiny; people are another animal species. On the other extreme, a totally celestial-focused eco-spirituality sees the human being apart from Earth, living in a temporary home of little consequence; all that is important is personal salvation and Earth be damned. The issue is complex.
Damage to Earth is damage to human community and a total ecosystem; ruined landscape depresses people and leads to dysfunctionality, and depressed people lose their activism. The dreams of green pioneers after that First Earth Day in 1970 have not materialized. Some rather easy victories such as cleaning up landfills and certain polluted waterways have been won. But new issues of far greater magnitude such as global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, and inability to resolve the nuclear waste issues have emerged and continue to haunt us today.
A negative-focused environmentalism is certainly necessary but sees damage done that must be exposed right now. A positive-focused environmentalism stresses reversing damages through reclamation and appropriate technological methods. However, even complementarity of the two working in tandem is not sufficient. Must we not have a realistic-focused environmentalism bent on changing a System that has devoured the natural environment?
Prayer: Lord, move us to go beyond exposing pollution and
making repairs to finding causes and addressing them forthrightly.
Manganese nodules in lump of Bluegrass clay soil.
February 27, 2015Recording Environmental Damage and Good Deeds
As hard as Mike and Jean tried, the couple was unable physically to stop the bulldozer from moving across the abandoned roadway on their property, which they had lovingly turned into a beautiful nature trail. Logging trucks immediately followed and cut the big trees at the far end of their property, even defying them by moving the property's boundaries. The couple called us and asked how we could help them. We said we could videotape the damages and encouraged them to seek proper legal action. Today,access to electronic devices makes this task easier.
Sometimes our environmental efforts were successful and sometimes not, but misdeeds must be challenged forthrightly. Jesus loves our wounded Earth with a compassionate love expressed in his suffering and death. That was my understanding while touching Calvary's rock. To show compassion for people is to show compassion for Earth herself, but the latter is far more difficult to record for all to see and hear. Often it is risky business, for we step on the toes of those making their profits by enclosing more commons belonging to all. And their reaction is swift and deadly.
Recording environmental damage is a needed first step in healing our Earth. Information overcomes ignorance of the problem, which otherwise allows continued environmental degradation to plague us. In the First Book of Samuel, Eli suffers because he does not address the issue of his sons' wickedness. Recording damage takes the spiritual stamina to see what we have neglected, and to act responsibly. Sometimes this brings down the ire of the offending parties (as John the Baptist would attest before his beheading). People, especially those in power, do not like to be reminded of misdeeds. To painstakingly record offenses is risky and yet it can lead to meaningful action. A recording reveals that a travesty has occurred; we cannot deny it, nor excuse ourselves because it is painful work, nor escape when we should act.
Paradoxically, we hesitate to record many good deeds. This can apply to the neglect to record the lives of elders in their waning years. When they die unrecorded, we lose a valuable link with our past. I regret not having recorded my father, because he had such a clear mind until the very end, and he died quite unexpectedly. We elders deny that lives will end but they do; we accept the excuse to wait until later; we escape to something more pleasant. We are tempted to put things off until tomorrow.
Monitoring and recording evidence is easier today with handy and almost ubiquitous electronic devices. With limited resources we still must take the time to arrange a recording moment. Perhaps some evidence needs to be gathered and one experienced with recording must be enlisted. The product can be easily duplicated and given as appreciated gifts on rare occasions. On the other hand, recorded misdeeds can be passed on quickly to the proper governmental environmental agencies.
Prayer: Lord, keep us vigilant and give us courage to act.
A Kentucky retreat cabin with February snow.
February 28, 2015 Confronting Reality through Annual Retreats
A quarter of a century ago three nuns came from the Northeast to assist poor Appalachians. They befriended Elsie and family and inspired them to help to confront a coal company that was polluting their creek. Suddenly Elsie's grandson's body was dropped on her porch dead from "accidental causes." To console Elsie the nuns had a celebration. I was invited and went and happened to pass a nearby church where that coal company had hired a revivalist to divert local minds from struggles. I gazed through the window and saw a young lady riving on the floor overcome with emotion; her young child stood in utter fright. Corporate consolation!
Desolation is painful, debilitating, and destructive of community adhesion. We must cope with such inner feelings in order for us to be renewed and not burn out. St. Ignatius of Loyola in The Spiritual Exercises directs us to record inner struggles and discern periods of desolation and consolation, our inner spiritual battles. With help from others we can "discern" movements of the spirit in our lives. I feel terrible just before the weather turns from tranquil to stormy, from unseasonably warm to cold. It's the barometer stupid! These weather changes are never time to make personal decisions; wait for a pleasant day. In times of desolation good advice can come from a counselor, clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, spiritual director, or wise friend.
We need time and space away from our ordinary busy life to discern the spirits. Some opt for help from another and so a spiritual director is a godsend; others seek a solitary place and choose a personal connection with God in the great outdoors. Special times and places are better for periodic or urgent discernment. Often I make my annual retreat in a natural setting and find this grace-filled. At times, I need special help and get that from a spiritual director. Place, time, and social connections are all part of the planning for a regular or extraordinary retreat. Some are distracted by plush circumstances; others find gnats and mosquitoes distracting and need more of a refined habitat and formal program. To each his own.
An annual getaway is important for the activist. Note that Jesus also sought to get away to a lonely place to pray. We need time and space lest our work overwhelm us and the desolation coming from current troubles can erode our enthusiasm. We need to seek and celebrate our consolations -- and doing works of mercy such as healing our wounded Earth can be consoling though tiring. We need to reaffirm that consolations are God's gifts worthy of thanks; they are not automatic and remind us that some saints had long periods of desolation before coming to the consoling embrace of God. For ordinary people, God is merciful and never requires us to bear more than we can handle at a given time. The consolation of a retreat experience is an opportunity to help us overcome desolation that can be such a burden for concerned caregivers.
Prayer: Lord, help us pace ourselves and to schedule retreat time in our yearly agenda so as to continue our spiritual balance.