Stormy Weather

After focusing on Oceans and the fauna/animal world, the third Sunday in this year’s Season of Creation focused on Storms. In the wake of Dorian the Horrible, the strongest hurricane on record, the words of the Holy Book take on an extra punch.

Psalm 29 expresses genuine awe of the mighty forces of nature that can break trees and cause the wilderness to shake, as we just witnessed in the Bahamas and even in our Maritime provinces. But there is also a feeling of comfort in Psalm 29, as the reassuring voice of God is heard over the waters. The psalmist recognizes that nature gives testimony to God’s ultimate power over the forces of nature. In the temple of Earth, all say, “Glory!”—both humankind and other-kind.

Well, insurance agencies and power company crews have a less positive view of these forces of nature. Interestingly, when major weather events happen we call them – “acts of God.” Do we still refer to storms and natural disasters as acts of God? But when we do, our attitude is far from a reverend one. When those broken trees fall on houses and cars, snapping power lines and cutting electricity, very few are singing “Glory.” More likely we will hear cursing or lamenting, weeping and wailing, over the destruction left behind, as is the case right now in the Bahamas and in parts of the eastern US and our Maritime provinces.

Something has happened to the quality and quantity of storms. Something is happening that is fundamentally changing the nature of weather systems. Hurricane Dorian is only the latest of example of this drastic change. Weather systems are more unpredictable, more volatile, and more intense. So are today’s destructive weather systems really “acts of God”? Or should they be more accurately called results of human-induced climate change? Some are still waving away the new climate realities as just part of the planet’s natural cycle. But what if we indeed need to entertain a different question: what if … climate change is caused by humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels which leads to greenhouse emissions that warm the planet and significantly contribute to the intense and volatile nature of today’s Dorians, causing unprecedented destruction and suffering?

No doubt, we are aware of the power of God in storms. But maybe it’s our own negative power that magnifies, intensifies and worsens the storms. Maybe it’s time to recognize our role in causing ocean waters, tornadoes and hurricanes to become more violent and more destructive. Our addiction to modern living disconnected from creation, our addiction to a consumer lifestyle, is now fueling wildfires and changing the content of clouds, creating feedback loops that in some way are affecting not only insurance premiums but our farmers and food prices, our safety and the sustainability of the earth itself in all its diversity and beauty. We are not merely victims or innocent bystanders in this complex and interrelated system.

But that, more than ever, might make us ask about the place of God; where indeed then is God in the midst of the storms? This, of course, is Job’s question. In Job, chapter 28, verses 28:20—27, Job trusts that there’s some divine wisdom in the storms, a decree and shape for winds and lightning bolts, some kind of divine plan that directs the waters. Job declares that even Death and Destruction, while having an inkling, don’t understand this. Maybe this means that storms aren’t only the work of punishment or disaster, but something more.

So what is the voice of the Lord saying today, in the midst of these catastrophic weather events and the climate crisis? Where is that Lady Wisdom when we need her most? At a time when our little boat of Planet Earth is more threatened than it has ever been – by a storm of our own making—it seems that Someone is blissfully asleep on the deck below.

The Gospel account of the calming of the storm (Luke 8:22—27) provides us with two alternatives. On the one hand, if the storm is allowed to wreak havoc, if the waves drown us and if danger threatens our existence, if we are in some figurative or actual way sinking to our end, then for sure God must be asleep at the wheel, and Jesus is snoozing in the back of the boat, oblivious to our trauma or terrors. The version of this story in Mark’s Gospel has the disciples begging the urgent question, “Don’t you care that we’re perishing?!”

The second alternative is that maybe in that particular instance on that particular body of water, in that particular storm, (at least) God cared. Jesus woke up and with power rebuked the winds and the water, and the raging waves ceased. Maybe those disciples were lucky to have the flesh-and-blood Jesus in their boat.

Yet, we too have the flesh-and-blood Jesus in our lives. Through faith, through our baptism, in our discipleship, in worship and Holy Communion, we too have Jesus in the boat of our lives. And we have the privilege of carrying everything to Jesus with the promise that Jesus hears us and will respond. Still, we must ask about these storms, these alleged acts of God. I may be wrong, but I don’t believe that my frantic prayers would make the tornado or the hurricane skip my house just to hit somebody else’s house instead.

Is it possible that nature, weather and storms have within them the equivalent of a free will, subject to the laws of nature? God still interacts with us, responds to us and strives for us, but the forces of nature have the power to destroy when the God-given boundaries are crossed and natural laws are violated. Just as we are simultaneously as sinners and saints, there is the complexity of evil versus righteousness even within the elements of nature.

So where indeed can we turn for a word of reassurance and hope? This is where Paul’s stunning words that begin his first Letter to the Corinthians provide another perspective, a third alternative, and maybe even the most reliable and radical alternative. This is the message of the cross as God’s wisdom. In this alternative vision, storms aren’t the “acts of God” spreading indiscriminate destruction, much less inflicted as punishment. And God’s presence is neither ignorant of our concerns nor simply magically lifting us out of risk and worry. Rather, in the cross, we have the peculiar evidence of God with us in suffering and even through loss.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians are also addressed to us. Paul reminds us that we are called. How are we called as Creation-caring Christ-followers in the wake of environmental chaos and climate change? We’re the ones blissfully asleep in the cruise ship of affluence and consumerism, while creation is screaming out to us with urgency: Don’t you see that nature itself is perishing, paying a high price for the comfort of the rich??

None of us are bigwigs on the world stage, none of us are of noble birth or have the ear of today’s emperors (1 Corinthians 1:21—31). It can feel intimidating to stand up to the mighty Goliaths of industry who laugh at our tiny, insignificant voices. But now it’s our children who are calling attention to the plight of God’s creation. Last year, a 15-year old teenager stood alone outside of the Swedish Parliament in demonstration, calling for drastic change in politics and economics to fight climate change. Since that day, countless youth all across the world, inspired by this young girl, have followed her lead and skipped school for the same cause. Far from being of noble birth or highly educated, Greta Thunberg has shaken the world in holding corporations and policy makers accountable. Later this month she will address the United Nations Climate Change Summit.

We are beginning to see the connections between our purchases, material pursuits and energy consumption with the storms and droughts that ravage island nations, communities and lives. We are rousing from sleep, as it were, at times dragged from our sleep. Called by the voice of our children who yearn for and deserve a bright future, we are finally taking up the work of changing course, to rebuke the economic systems that cause the raging wind and waves.

Perhaps that is how today we are to understand the story of Jesus being roused from sleep to calm the storm. Maybe Jesus’ actions were a kind of parable: “The kingdom of God is like waking from sleep to confront the storm.”

The cross reveals a God who won’t miraculously still every storm at our beckon call, certainly not the storms caused by our own greed and selfishness. But even more miraculously, the God who raised Jesus from the grave won’t abandon ship or leave us alone in our fears. God in Christ is not indifferent to the storms of life. This incomprehensible and awesome God did something much more revolutionary. In Jesus Christ, God entered our humanity, storms and sin and death and all. That radical identification in Christ, which we call Incarnation (God becoming flesh), now gives us a God who is mightier than a hurricane and more persistent than the dangerous floodwaters:
Fear not, I am with you, oh, be not dismayed,
for I am your God and will still give you aid.

I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand,
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through fi’ry trials your pathway shall lie,
my grace, all-sufficient, shall be your supply.
The flames shall not hurt you; I only design
your dross to consume and your gold to refine.

(Hymn: How Firm a Foundation)

Homily preached on September 15, 2019 as part of the Season of Creation: Job 28:20—27, Psalm 29, 1 Corinthians 1:21—31, Luke 8:22—25.
With thanks to the Season of Creation Resources
The Season of Creation runs from September 1 (World Day of Prayer for Creation) to October 4 (Feast of St. Francis of Assisi). Church leaders summon the churches to observe this season in their worship and preaching. Pope Francis’ 2019 letter for the occasion can be found here.

Old Wineskins

The other day I fell off my bike — landing gently in soft grass, thank God. The earth’s bump hiding in the grass kissed my head, causing a bump of my own. It was a humbling reminder of a slowly aging body — less flexible with a diminishing aptitude for quick reaction and good balance. The physical changes are ever so subtle yet ever so poignant. And I began to wonder if sometimes an aging body parallels an aging mind, less flexible and struggling to integrate new realities around us.

As if the good Lord overheard my grumbling over the fall, not soon after the Gospel in my morning prayer time was Luke 5:36–39 in which Jesus tells this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins.”

Without giving in to defeatism, I began to wonder. I know plenty of inspiring and robust elders who possess an puzzling amount of physical energy, a healthy constitution, and a quick wit to boot. These old wineskins have no trouble storing , and even generating, new wine. On the other hand, I know elders who diminish sooner than their chronological age would suggest, becoming old wineskins before their time without much capacity to accommodate the new wine of change and transformation. But often such diminishment is beyond our control.

Many cultures, including our Indigenous people, convey great respect towards their elders. Drawing from a lifetime of living, learning hard lessons through trials and challenges, elders are considered a source of wisdom and advice, tradition and knowledge. In some cultures, grandparents live with their children’s families, contributing to the household as they are able. All this assumes of course that the old have lived a virtuous life that is worth emulating. This also assumes that grandparents are in reasonable health, remain of sound mind, and have learnt to love generously without being possessive or authoritarian. In other words, old wineskins need to maintain a certain “souplesse” and grace. But if the physical and mental faculties of elders no longer function in healthy ways, trouble can arise when families insist on maintaining ancient traditions of inter-generational care, however noble this may be. Then the old wineskins of tradition or rigidity can burst, causing heartache and desolation.

While all cultures include many dutiful and loving children who will do almost anything to help their parents and other seniors, growing old in western cultures sometimes does not come with this type of respect and honour, quite the contrary. An article published last year claims that people who associate old age with uselessness or senility are more likely to develop dementia than people who associate it with positive attributes, such as wisdom and respect.

So where do I find myself? The line between senility and wisdom seems thin some days. I feel like an old wineskin unable to contain new wine when I struggle to grasp new concepts and realities, the kind that the young embrace without much effort. I admire the idealism and passion of youth — hey, I was there once –, but worry about its occasional naivete and arrogance (I was there too!). I feel there’s still some good wisdom wine in my wineskin, seasoned through years of living and laughing and suffering. I crave quality time with my children and their loved ones, but cringe at the thought of permanently moving in with any of them. Sometimes I wonder whether my wisdom wine is still relevant and meaningful and wanted in a world where elders are parked in nursing homes and often dismissed, judged or belittled for their clinging to deeply cherished values and beliefs. And yet, when walking closely with others in their seasons of pain and transition, the seasoned, sacred wine of compassion, caring and understanding flows richly from my heart. So old age does not automatically equal old and cracked wineskins. There is still much wine left in my heart, seasoned in six decades of life lessons, eager to be poured out for another’s healing and consolation, guidance and admonishment.

But I’ll be honest; I worry. I worry about so much tradition, wisdom and history being ignored or outright considered useless by the new generation. The young possess an enviable zeal and passion for what is noble and right and just — I remember the season well. But sometimes the young also suffer a certain over-confidence in their own right, thus risking to dismiss the wisdom of age — been there, done that, the shoe’s on the other foot now. The world’s enthusiasm for all things new can come with a loss of honour and respect for elders, in both secular and religious spheres. God may be doing a new thing in the young (Isaiah 43:19), but to then make an absolute claim “out with the old, in with the new” is a stretch too far, me thinks.

I derive a deep sense of belonging by being part of God’s story throughout time and space. The most meaningful and life-giving story is Jesus Christ. I feel part of the universe through Christ, I look to him as a pattern for how to live each day, how to engage relationships in love and mercy, and I seek Christ in times of uncertainty and struggle. I also need the fellowship of the church, the family of faith, to help and guide me on this path of discipleship and mission.

But this kind of deep connection to faith, spirituality and community seems to become a rarity, and that concerns me. How and where will future generations anchor their existence in a source beyond themselves? For sure, new wine belongs in new wineskins, but please, beloved young ones, be gentle and slow in discarding any old wineskin. God might be doing a new thing through you, but God also graced this brave new world with elders to love, to cherish and to learn from. And who knows, some of these elders might still contain some seasoned wine of wisdom and affection you might need along the way, even from those who are not as steady on two wheels anymore as they used to be.