Pastoral Letter: 2020 – ‘OK Boomer’

Symbol of Trinity Church
We have started a series of fictional pastoral letters, set in the future, from the priests at Trinity Church, an Episcopal church located somewhere in the United States. This first letter is dated for the year 2020.

It is available in .pdf format here.

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Pastoral Letter: 2020 – ‘OK Boomer’

Symbol of Trinity Church

My Sisters and Brothers of Trinity Church:

This year marks my 15th year serving you as rector of Trinity church. We have had some wonderful times together — worshiping, praying and serving our community. But it has also been a difficult fifteen years; our beloved church, and the Episcopal church overall, faces profound long-term challenges.

One of our parishioners prepared the following chart from data available at the church’s national web site. It shows nationwide membership in the Episcopal church in the United States.

Membership Episcopal church

You can see that in the year 2005 — about the time I was called as your rector — the national church had about 820,000 members. Now we are down to 550,000 — a drop of 35% in just 15 years. If this trend continues then we will have no members at all in the year 2045. I know that organizational changes (maybe mergers with other churches) will change that trajectory somewhat. But we have to recognize that the Episcopal church is fading into insignificance.

Here at Trinity we have seen a similar pattern. Our attendance at Sunday worship has drifted downhill, the average age of our parishioners is rising, and our finances are stretched. We are spending an ever-increasing amount of our budget just keeping the building and property maintained instead of serving others in our community. And whatever needs to be done, it seems as if it is always the same volunteers who show up. They are getting tired and discouraged.

Change is needed — both here at Trinity and in the church at large. Therefore, I have decided to hang up my vestments and move into semi-retirement. The time has come for a fresh vision, fresh leadership for Trinity.

Who is the right person to lead our parish in these difficult times? That decision is, of course, up to you — the parishioners and vestry of Trinity. But, as I depart, maybe I could offer a few thoughts.

Let’s start by understanding that our difficulties do not arise from internal disagreements to do with issues such as same-sex marriage. Such topics may matter to us, but they are not the reason for our decline. The real reason that we are in decline is that the world around us is changing, but we are not changing with it.

So how is the world changing? What are the issues that really matter? What do we say when Pilate asked of our Lord, “What is truth?”

I suggest that the issue that has moved to front-and-center in just the last few years is climate change. It matters because it affects everyone, everywhere, all the time. No exceptions. Throughout 2020 bad news to do with the climate kept piling up. What brought that news home to us here at Trinity were the unprecedented floods that covered our farmlands for the second year in a row. These floods were followed, as we are all aware, by three months of drought. We learned — as if we did not already know — that climate change is no longer just about melting icebergs, stranded polar bears and forest fires on the other side of the world. It is something that is affecting members of our parish here and now. Two of our parishioners who own farms had to sell up — and this year’s weekly Farmers Market was the worst that we have ever seen.

So far, our response to this crisis has been to treat it as yet another item to be added to our church’s “To-Do” list. Climate change is not seen as an existential issue at the core of other problems. Our environmental committee has done great work in encouraging the use of biodegradable products, and in researching the possibility of solar panels on the roof of the rectory. But I think that we all know that the issues we face require a more fundamental response.

Although the situation that we face is discouraging, there is hope. Let’s take a look at the image that closed out 2019: Time magazine’s Person of the Year — that remarkable young lady Greta Thunberg. She and many other young people like her bring just the qualities that our church needs: youth, energy, truth-telling, leadership and a sense of mission.

Greta Thunberg Time magazine cover 2019

Yet, when it comes to climate change, our national and international political leaders are not, in fact, leaders. And they never will be leaders because any honest response to the climate crisis means that we will have to reduce our material standard of living. Talk like that soon makes a politician an ex-politician. But Christians can talk this way because they know that Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday.

So, let’s connect the dots here.

  • Trinity Church and the national church badly need young people to provide fresh leadership and vision.
  • Young people are reacting with passion, even anger, when they look at the world that they are inheriting from us older folk (where the word “older” means anyone over 20 years of age). Their slogan in 2019 was, “OK Boomer”. This year it seems to be, “Faster than Expected”.
  • We can provide with them with a faith structure for their passion and work. The Christian church has done it before, it can do it again.
  • Let’s invite them in and so provide our church with a wonderful opportunity for leadership.

But the above requires a new way of thinking, a new interpretation of scripture. For too many years we have followed the words given to Noah following the flood (Genesis 9).

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.

The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands.”

Well, we pretty much aced that one. We have indeed been fruitful. In Biblical times the population of the earth was probably around 0.5 billion. Now we are at 7.5 billion and rising. And the beasts, birds and fish certainly live in dread of us. We need a new interpretation of scripture, not one based on our domination of nature, but on living within nature’s rhythms. Let’s try Ecclesiastes 3.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance . . .

 . . . As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.

I’m not so sure about the phrase, “Everything is meaningless”. But a theology that stresses living within the biosphere, not dominating is what we need.

So, my fellow parishioners, you can see why I have decided to move on. We need a leader who provides realistic hope. He or she will not offer “hopium” — the trap of, “They will think of something”. But the new leader must also provide a means for channeling the energy and anger of our young people so that we do not become fatalistic. He or she will provide our beloved Trinity church with a vision of Realistic Hope.

Realistic Hope

In closing, I ask us to keep in mind the words from Philippians 4:6,

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

In Christ, your friend and pastor,

Thomas +


P.S. Just after writing this letter I heard from the Bishop that our national church is setting up a Council with other denominations to come up with responses to the climate chaos crisis. These responses must be faith-based and workable. I have been asked to serve on that Council, and — maybe this was a mistake — I agreed. So it’s likely that you will be hearing from me again!

Third Sunday of Advent: Missionaries

Bunyan pilgrim City of Destruction

Appointed Gospel

This week’s lectionary reading is taken from Matthew 11:2-11.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

This passage touches on two themes. The first is that we have a duty to support those who are suffering or who are in need. That duty never goes away. The second is that being a prophet is not much fun — at least not in the short term. These two thoughts bring us to a news item and some thoughts as to why we bother talking about these issues.

Missionaries

The following headline from the Guardian newspaper of December 6th 2019.

Greta Thunberg says school strikes have achieved nothing.

The article goes on to say that, “ . . . in the four years since the [Paris] agreement was signed, greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 4% and the talks this year are not expected to produce new commitments”.

So here we have a young lady with a truly outstanding gift for communication and public relations saying that her work has achieved nothing.

If she feels this way, what about regular folks (some of whom may be reading these words) who are trying to make a difference? Why not spend our time working only with our families and local community preparing for the seemingly inevitable consequences of what is bearing down on us? What’s the point of going to protests, writing blogs and organizing meetings?

In climate change circles there is much discussion concerning ‘Deniers’ and ‘Delayers’ — those people who do not accept that the climate is changing, or, if it is, that humans are not the cause of that change. What gets far less discussion are the factors that motivate and drive the ‘Missionaries’ — those who spend time, effort and money trying to persuade others that the world is changing, and that we need to take action.

Why do the Climate Change Missionaries do what they do? What’s in it for them? Certainly not money — and probably not fame or reputation. In fact, they are probably more likely to be blamed as things start to go awry: “Shoot the messenger”. As conditions deteriorate, those who preached about these topics will not be thanked; they will be blamed, “You knew about this, you should have told us about this earlier, it’s your fault”.

Returning to Thunberg, she is consistently outspoken about the lack of leadership from elected and business officials. In my view these people will continue to fail to lead because any serious response to the climate crisis requires people to make sacrifices. But any politician who asks for sacrifice soon becomes an ex-politician. And the fundamental goal of any business is to encourage people to consume more, not to cut back.

This leadership vacuum provides an opportunity for the church. In principle, church members and leaders are willing to sacrifice (something about Good Friday). Whether the church will actually step up to the plate remains to be seen. But filling this leadership vacuum is the mission opportunity that the church can offer to both its members and to the community.

Second Sunday of Advent: Crying in the Wilderness

Pontius Pilate questioning Jesus
Pilate Questioning Jesus

Administrative Note

An encouraging number of people have expressed an interest in the topic of ‘Climate Change Theology’. Therefore, I will make an adjustment to this weekly post. To date, I have been publishing a post at this site once a week on Wednesday mornings at 10:00 a.m. east coast time. Typically the posts have been in two parts. The first part looks at this week’s appointed gospel reading in the context of the Age of Limits (climate change, resource depletion, population overshoot, and so on). This week I struggle with what it means to be a missionary in today’s consumer culture when climate change and related issues are just part of the cacophony. (One unexpected benefit of this writing strategy is that it means that I am prepared for this week’s sermon, regardless of the topic being discussed.)

The second part of a typical post consists of one or more short discussions to do with the dilemmas that we face. For example, last week we looked at my fourth “Aha!” moment: the I-10 Freeway, and at the unreality of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6% per annum for the next two decades, as called for in a recent United Nations report.

As time permits (and, like everyone else, I have a life to live) I will add a third section to do with theology.

Appointed Gospel

This week’s lectionary reading is taken from Matthew 3:1-12.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The familiar phrase, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness” spoke to me. The Christian faith is a missionary faith. We are directed by passages such as this from Mark 16.

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation”.

Yet preaching about climate change and resource limits seems to have very little impact. We have a situation where it is certain that the world’s climate is going to be radically altered within the lifetime of many (most) people living now. There is even plausible discussion suggesting that climate change may be so drastic as to lead to the end of civilization within a generation or two. Whether you agree with such extreme predictions or not, we still need to address three facts: (1) Age of Limits issues are existential — radical change is on the horizon, and everyone — there are no exceptions — everyone, will be affected, (2) very few people really care, and (3) our national and international leaders are not, in fact, leaders.

Given this background, what are the news media obsessing about? Mostly impeachment, Brexit and this year’s superbowl.

“Aha!” Moment #5: Psychohistory

In previous posts I have shown how I have had various “Aha!” moments when an idea or an insight suddenly clicked. There have been five of these so far. They are:

  1. Predicaments, Not Problems
  2. Augustine’s City of God
  3. Light Bulbs
  4. The I-10 Freeway
  5. Psychohistory

This week, I would like to look at the fifth of these: Psychohistory. It came about when I re-read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a set of science fiction stories set at a time when humanity has developed the technology to travel to other planets. At the start of the series all the inhabited planets in the galaxy are part of a single empire. But the Empire is declining in power, wealth and prestige. The hero of the series, a man named Hari Seldon, develops a discipline that he refers to as psychohistory. This discipline, which combines elements of history, sociology and statistics, allows him to understand how societies change and evolve. Based on his analysis, Seldon is able to organize new societal structures that will form the basis of a new empire that will develop quickly and bring a quick end to the chaos resulting from the breakdown of the first empire.

The reason that this book series formed the basis of an “Aha!” Moment is that we need to develop our own theory of psychohistory. The issues that we face — climate change, resource depletion, over-population, to name but a few, are not only inherently complex, but they interact with one another in ways that are very difficult to understand and predict. Some over-arching theory is needed. Such a theory will provide us with an understanding as to what is taking place, and will allow us to develop means of addressing the predicaments that we face.

As an example of the need for systems thinking, consider the call for the elimination of fossil fuels from people such as Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It could be that their message is mostly unnecessary because our use of these fuels, particularly oil, is probably going down anyway, as discussed in the Peak Prosperity post Houston, We Have A Problem. Slide 4 from Art Berman’s presentation is particularly revealing.

Production of tight oil since 2005

The production of conventional crude oil in the United States reached a peak in the year 1970, as predicted by the great M. King Hubbert in 1956. In recent years there has been a surge in the production of Light Tight Oil and Shale Gas, as the slide shows. But there are many indications that tight oil production has reached a peak and that it will decline in the next five years (for example, this this post to do with Chesapeake Energy).

If production does decline as quickly as it ramped up then Thunberg and Ocasio-Cortez may be reminded of the proverb, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it”. Another example of the need for systems thinking, this one to do with the realities of project management, is provided in the post The Slow Train.

Theology

This is the first post to do with the topic of Climate Change Theology. As a starting point, I would like to consider the following words from Ecclesiastes 1.

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.

I chose those words because they seem to express a view of the type of world that we need to create rather than the one that we have created based on what was told to Noah after the flood (Genesis 9).

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands.”.

Do we really need to “be fruitful”, to increase the world’s population? Do we really need to have all other creatures live in “fear and dread” of us?

I started thinking about the need for a theology for our times when a friend at church asked, “Where is God in all this?” We are entering a time when society as a whole will be asking the same question. Which means that the church needs to have a response if it is to provide meaningful leadership. The starting point for such an effort is to develop an intellectual framework, or, in religious terms, a theology.

Theology is to do with seeking truth through God’s word (theos, God, and logos, Word). As a semi-retired chemical engineer you may reasonably ask why I am writing on this topic. Shouldn’t we leave it to the professional theologians, the seminarians and the ordained clergy — people who are trained to understand and interpret God’s word? It’s a good question, one which we will discuss in coming posts.

In the meantime, let us start with the very sensible question that Pontius Pilate asks in John 18:38.

Jesus says,

. . . the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.

To which Pilate replies,

What is truth?