Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Consuming Our Way out of the Climate Crisis

It was morning, just a tick past eight, and I was walking.

I regularly walk my errands, because it's good for my soul.  My mind clears when walking.  Anxiety  and scatter drifts away, and my thinking focuses.  I see the world around me.  I feel and smell and hear, and the rhythm of my movement calms me.  I was heading home, having dropped off our trusty hybrid Honda for a routine service.

It was cool out, and a little overcast, and the leaves were dancing down from the trees as fall began.  On the roads, an increasing flow of cars, as the DC metropolitan area woke for another morning of anxious rushing busyness.

My walk home would be just over three miles, which would take me, at my modest pace, fifty minutes.

This is, of course, inefficient.  Inconvenient.  It requires effort.

I could have called a Lyft or an Uber.  I could have had the dealership drive me home in one of their courtesy vehicles.  But I didn't, because, well, why?  Am I in that much of a hurry?  I am not.  Do I need the exercise?  I most certainly do.  Is my convenience worth that expenditure of energy?  I don't think it's necessary.

And as I walked, I found my thoughts turning to the way we are taught to think about caring for our planet.  What we need, we are told, is new efficient stuff.  We need a $50,000 electric car.  We need a $50,000 solar roof and a $12,000 home battery unit.  We need a three hundred dollar wi-fi connected thermostat that pours data into the cloud through our two hundred dollar router and our big fiber optic multi-thousand dollar annual connectivity charge.

I do not question that these are nice things.  If one has the resources for them, then by all means, go ahead.

But I'm not sure that consuming the same amount differently is the full moral response to a climate crisis.  It's like switching up your diet, and eating two thousand calories of kale instead of an IHOP pancake platter.  It's the same amount of calories, only I'm not sure a human being can eat that much kale.  As much as I love greens, death by kale seems a bad thing.

Somewhere in there, we need to consume less.  Just...less.  We need to travel less.  We need to rush about less.  We need to rediscover the old classic virtue of thrift, the simple pleasure of slower and smaller.  Of using the legs God gave us.  Of being aware.

This isn't hard.  In fact, it's rather pleasurable. 

And so I walked, and I breathed in the cool air, and I watched as the other humans rushed towards our future wrapped in tons of shiny new steel.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Getting to Know Rachel

For the last two months, my adult education class has been reading together through G.K. Chesterton's ORTHODOXY, because, well, it's worth doing.  My goal as a pastor is to share the richest spiritual food I've tasted with as many souls as I can, and that's what I'm doing.

It's a whirling, heady, poetic, and often baffling defense of the faith, and it's complicated. 

Wonderful, because Gilbert Keith can spin out some of the most beautiful thoughts, and turns a phrase with a grace that few authors can match. The deep abiding liberality of his soul radiates from so much of this book, as he shows the ability to both disagree fiercely with another, and yet recognize and appreciate all that is good in them. His lifelong friendship/jousting with George Bernard Shaw is perhaps the most noted example, but his is a great warm heart that loves and honors a worthy opponent.

Frustrating, because he can be...well...a little full of himself. And a little meandering in his mucking about with ideas. And a little too delighted in his own thinking, so much so that he often fails to notice when he's lost track of compassion. And just blazingly wrong about some things, a wrongness that he misses as he spins out his words.  But just when you're getting annoyed with him, then, again, suddenly a phrase or paragraph of such radiant grace or whimsy that you love him again.

This book has been great grist for meaty, respectful conversations and laughter.

But it's been something more.  We're not just reading Chesterton.  We're with him, because he's powerfully present in his own words.  This isn't academic writing.  It's the farthest thing from abstract or formal.  His great wit is in the room with us.  His love of life and art and literature, all of his exuberance is in the room with us.  And sure, he's monologuing a bit, and prone to bloviation on occasion.  But that's who he was.  We hear him.  We're connected to this soul, and to his particular story and take on faith and creation.  In an odd way, he remains a living presence with us, as his words tell us who he is and witness to how faith shaped him.

Which gets me to the next book we're reading as a class.  It's SEARCHING FOR SUNDAY, by Rachel Held Evans.

When Rachel Held Evans passed earlier this year, there was a great disturbance in the progressive Christian force.  Seemingly everyone I knew online was filled with lament at her untimely death, and...particularly among those who knew her...there was a deep, physical, personal grief.  I didn't know her at all.  I knew of her, of course, but I'd not yet read anything more than a few blog posts and the occasional twitter argument.   None of the folks in my class had read her, either, although some had intended to.

I understood the cries of common lament, though I didn't participate.  There are loved ones I have lost.  I miss the flesh and bones of them, the present life of them.  The world felt emptier in the knowledge they no longer walked it.  So I got that.

But people would cry, O, O, we've lost her voice!  She is gone!  She is gone!  Even the foreword to SEARCHING FOR SUNDAY presages that cry.  "Whenever I want to scare myself," it begins, "I consider what would happen to the world if Rachel Held Evans stopped writing."

I wonder at the root of that sentiment.

Perhaps it rises from the loss felt when a bright creative soul passes, and you realize that you have received all of their words and art and music.  Particularly with one who was familiar and beloved, one from whom more was hoped and eagerly expected, one who on social media was right there, talking about the thing that stirred the day.

Perhaps it rises from those for whom she was tangible, a friend and beloved colleague, a mentor and a sister in the faith.

But as someone who is just starting to engage with her, my encounter is new and fresh.  That, of course, is part of the magic of books.

Books cause entire worlds to wake within us, and make us see things that have never been.  The best books also bear the living imprint of their author's soul.  You can read them, and truly get to know that person, as surely as if that author was right there with you.  It's just scratches of ink on a wood byproduct, or pixels on a screen, but there that person is.  

Again, books are magical that way.  I use that word only barely as metaphor, perhaps not as metaphor at all.  

I never met, spoke with, or personally knew Rachel Held Evans.  Her span of days has passed, as it does for all mortals.  What she is now rests in God.  But she has left us a gift, one that means I'm confident she can still be known, as one encounters her voice and the written memories of her soul.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Rage of Lemmings

We all know what lemmings are.

They are cute little rodents, native to Norway, that sometimes reach a point of such massive overpopulation that they create huge herds.  Those herds race about, and eventually fling themselves blindly off of cliffs.  It's one of those factoids from the natural world that often gets applied to humanity, as we warn against "being a bunch of lemmings."  It's shorthand for blindly, mindlessly following a path to our own destruction.  It's such a familiar metaphor that it's a bit trite, and a little stale.

I'd never really studied any more about lemmings after learning about their tendency to destroy themselves, and that meant I really didn't have a sense of them as creatures.  My assumption as a child: lemmings were like mice.  They were timid, easily frightened creatures that scampered about eating crops.  They were vulnerable, and like most rodents their primary evolved defense was just to have so many babies that you couldn't eat/kill them all.   

My vision of lemmings on the march to oblivion was that of a mass of fearful creatures that had over-reproduced.  A lemming death march, or so I thought, was being driven by blind terror, hunger, and the false security of the herd.

But that's not quite right.  Norwegian lemmings aren't mice.  They're not timid.  They don't cower in their holes, or sneak about in darkness.

They have one mode: attack.  That's all they do.  If you mess with a lemming, it will fight you until you are dead.  If you're a cat?  A bird of prey?  A towering higher primate?  Lemmings don't care.  Lemmings never, ever, ever back down.  Lemmings, like Bruce Banner, are always angry.

They scream, their black eyes a pit of fury. They crouch, ready to strike, teeth bared.  They leap at you, ready to take a chunk of your flesh.

They wear their aggression on their bodies, their brightly colored pelts serving as a threat display.  Those bright colors against the snow and rock snarl to the world that if you even think about [fornicating] with it, a lemming will [fornicate] you up,  mother[fornicator].

This puts their self-annihilating behavior in an entirely different light.  They don't destroy themselves because they are hungry or afraid or herd animals. 

They destroy themselves because they cannot ever, ever turn off their rage.  

If they see a cliff, a great void before them?  They hurl themselves over it with the fearlessness that comes from fury.  If they encounter the North Sea, with its towering waves and bittercold waters?  They attack.  They fling themselves into the sea and swim until they perish not because they have a death wish, but because they will not back down in the face of anything, not even the sea.

This, to be honest, makes the lemming an even more pungent metaphor.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Of Sanctuary and Guarding Our Souls

I was at a memorial service for a long time member of my little church, where I was talking shop with my predecessor, who'd come to pay her respects to an old friend.

We're both writers, and she mentioned something as our conversation danced around ministry, her upcoming book, and the things we were writing.

"Yeah, I noticed that you don't really write much about politics any more," she said.

Which is true.  I don't as much.  Occasionally, sure.  It's not that I don't think about it.  It's not that I lack opinions, or that my feelings have changed in any meaningful way.  Nor is it that I'm any less informed, or any less committed to our imperiled constitutional republic.

It's none of those things.  It's something else.  It's something more analogous to the way we protect the integrity of our souls when we find ourselves connected to toxic or psychotic persons.  There are souls, and all of us know them, who will devour every last bit of us.  They're filled with anger and relentlessly hostile, or constantly radiating negativity, or manufacturing crises.  It's all drama, all the time, all about them.

If they're a neighbor, a co-workers or acquaintances, there's some natural space there, some distance that gives us room to breathe.  If they're our boss or in a position of power, it's harder.

If they are loved ones, it's hardest of all.  They could be a brother or sister, parent or child.  We love them, and we don't want to stop loving them, but if we don't set boundaries for our souls, and have significant places of respite, we'll get torn apart.

So much of our national dialogue is like being in relationship with that kind of soul.  We taken together are cognitively dissonant, blindly angry, unable to find anything that gives us cohesion. burning in the entropic fire of big raging drama.

As someone who processes things by writing them, and thinks about things by writing them out, there's only so much toxicity, anger, and falseness that my soul can manage before it messes with me.  It feels, at times, like we are foie gras geese of outrage, force-fed bitterness and negativity until we've gone wrong inside, our souls fat and distended with hate.

All of life cannot be that, if we are to remain sane.  The wise put some distance between themselves and the self-destructive, we hear from the Proverbs.  Even Jesus found himself needing that time, up in the quiet air, away from the roar and crazy of the crowd.

We need the simple healing graces of dirt under our nails.  We need that long quiet walk, or a good long run.  We need the word-spun world of an interesting book, or a meal and laughter shared with friends.  Those things aren't escapism.  Nor do they mean we don't care, and that we're not paying due attention.

They simply keep us from forgetting what the point of it all is.