Thursday, September 21, 2017

Yelling Out the Window in Order to Save the World

Genesis 2:4-7, 3:17-19

So, in recent years—really, just over the last two or three—I have come to realize there is a hard, real truth to my life that cannot be avoided, no matter how much I ignore it or avoid it, pray for it not be or how much that I’ve asked God to delay it just a little longer. The fact of the matter is…turning forty years old is truly, undeniably the gateway into middle-age. Now that I am in mid-forties, I am finding to my horror—my horror!!—that your eyesight REALLY does change after you hit the big 4-0. I always secretly thought, my eyes haven’t changed since I was a teenager, they won’t change like everyone says. They won’t. But I know right now I’m going to need progressives after my next eye exam. Now that I look back, I can see there were warning signs that middle-age was slowly beginning to seep into my life—it began slowly and I could brush it off at first. Like when I began complaining that it seemed like the kids get a LOT of days off of school—I couldn’t remember having SO MANY days off of school when I was a kid. I thought that kind of complaint was more about being a parent and not wanting children at home squabbling over the video games. It was rally more about parenting rather than being middle-aged.

I had a feeling the change might be coming. But, you see, the coming of middle-age plants itself quietly and firmly without you even really noticing—and then suddenly you say or do something that makes it clear—there is no going backwards. Like when the teenagers started this thing about heading out the door wearing sneakers for shoes and no coat on snowy days I would yell after them, when I was a kid, I had to wear snow pants, a winter jacket, a toque and a big long scarf wrapped around my head!! I might as well have told them that I had to walk to school—uphill both ways. Middle age had arrived. Or that moment when I found some items in the garbage that was clearly recyclable. I called the kids upstairs and exclaimed to them that it was going to be THEIR GENERATION that was going to save the planet and shouldn’t they be the ones policing the recycling in the house, not me?! I actually used those words—YOUR GENERATION. No only did I accept that divide between us versus them but it as if I was saying it was up to them to create the future because we adults have not managed to figure out. It was on their shoulders as if we, the people of MY generation have abdicated any further responsibility to fix the mess we’re in. I might well have, in that frustrated moment, when looking at the recycling in the garbage just given my head a little shake like my elderly grandma would do once her hearing got to the point that she didn’t catch most of what we were saying and she gave up trying to understand and just shake her head when she decided it wasn’t worth figuring out.

It makes sense that the next generation will be the ones to sort out these struggles that we have in keeping and tilling God’s creation. The next generation always seems to have more passion and knowledge that we older folks have. They are not yet spoiled by cynicism or frustrated by history repeating itself. It would be lovely if we old folks could simply hand our young people a seed for the future as the Lorax does with the young child at the end of the tale, that will be the saving grace for a world without truffula trees and the brown bar-ba-loots who live amongst them. It would be lovely to hand over that responsibility. But then you find recyclables in your garbage or worse yet! You are driving in your neighbourhood three days ago and see a youngster—maybe 9 or 10 years old—drop his garbage on the ground. He just dropped it and kept walking. And you think, arg, have we learned NOTHING?! As I was driving onwards I chided myself for not rolling down my window and yelling at him to pick it up (after-all, I’m middle-aged, I could get away with it) but I justified not doing so by telling myself, ‘it wasn’t really safe, I was in a playground zone, I needed to be focused’. And then the word UNLESS popped into my head. From the end of the Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”

So, here’s a fun fact. Despite all the achievements humankind has made over the years because of our big brains and our opposable thumbs, our lives and all of God’s creation depend upon to a six-inch layer of topsoil. Anyone who has read or watched the movie, The Martian, knows our existence depends upon a land that is full of minerals, nutrients and microscopic organisms. It is this healthy land such as this that God created in the Garden of Eden and it from this rich and fertile land that God planted the plants and trees so they could grow and it this same land that God used to form the first human. You see the children’s toy, the Cabbage Patch Kids could have been an excellent environmental message. If the soil is not healthy, the Cabbage Patch might not be able to produce more Kids. In this Season of Creation, we turn our eyes and our ears to what the Bible and God tells us about the rest of creation. We take this time to suppress our natural tendency to think that everything, all the time is about us, God’s humanity, and we look outward of ourselves to remember that God’s creation is so much bigger than human beings. And we are reminded that some very fundamental aspects of creation are necessary for all life. And another fun fact—we, humanity, is not one of those foundations upon which all life on earth relies for health and growth. Soil, rain, trees, the tides of the ocean, fire and ice matter more to our existence than any war, political party or religious institution. 

As this Sunday we call Land Sunday was approaching, I started paying more attention to the land that surrounds me each day. I was driving to church for choir practice the other day and I realized that some of my drive is parallel to the dump up by Beacon Hill. This is another middle-age-type comment that I’ve been making lately, “I can remember the days…I can remember the days in which you had to go out of your way to get near the dump—actually we call it a landfill now—but back then, it was out in the country, north of Calgary but Calgary has grown so much that now I drive right alongside it. But you wouldn’t know it. From Stoney Trail there is no indication that just over the big berm to the north is the landfill. The surrounding area is very neat and tidy. In Canada we have the privilege of space. Space means that we can put our industry, mining and landfills far away from the general public. We also have the privilege of paying taxes.  And I do paying taxes is a privilege because it is through our tax system we have infrastructure that creates a system for garbage removal. There is no municipal garbage collection where we stay in Zambia and so every once in a while we would drive by big areas alongside the road strewn with garage, kids picking through the piles or the garbage burning. What was experienced here in Calgary this summer as air pollution from the BC fires was experienced by us travelers every day in Kitwe due to garbage burning.

Open Pit Copper Mine in Chingola, Zambia
In Canada what harm we may doing to our environment is not often right on doorstep. Not many of us Albertans have much occasion to be in proximity to the oil sands, it can be out of sight, out of mind. There are many reasons to be mining in northern Alberta that way, I’m not arguing here whether or not to mine but only to lift up that most of Albertans and Canadians are not close enough to the oil sands to keep an eye on the corporations and ensure that regulations protecting the environment are being adhered to. We need to rely on reports, the government and environmental groups to speak on behalf of God’s creation in that part of our country. In Zambia, however, the mines are not a distant, far off entity. They are right at the edge of town. They are right in the back yard of their neighbours. During our trip there last month, our group was invited to tour an open-pit copper mine in the town down the road from Kitwe. Once we arrived, we did not have to leave the town to access the mine—it was that close. The only way I can think to describe to you what this mine looked like was to compare it to the Grand Canyon. The ground was flat for kilometers surrounding the pit but then the ground fell away sharply, in ever deeper concentric circles. Machinery that was ginormous—I know because we got to climb up and onto one of the Canadian shovels they use—looked like little Tonka trucks from our lookout because the pit was so vast and deep. It was oddly beautiful in how you could see the different layers of the earth in the walls of the pit. But I could not see this sight without having in mind what I saw in the Mine’s model room that we visited first. Describe the photos. There was a machine that, with the help of light and revolving panes of glass, the viewer could see the area of land that the open pit mine covered before and after the pit was dug. What struck me was that when I first saw the 'before' photo, I saw flat land and scrub. When one of our Zambian hosts watched it with me, he immediately pointed out where the villages had been. Being of the area and knowing what to look for, he saw right away what I did not--how many villages were removed from the landscape because of the open pit.

In the scripture reading today we are told we are made of the earth. Not only are we are dust but it is to dust that we shall return. In last week’s scripture reading we were reminded that God entrusted humanity to keep creation and to till it—in other words, we are to serve the earth, caring for its health and well-being as we would any other dependent in our care. And, in doing so, we care for ourselves, we serve the human race, our families and future generations. I have spoken about Ubuntu theology but only in regards to humans, particularly concerning social justice issues. Ubuntu theology became developed primarily in South Africa—Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote quite a bit on the topic. There can be many different ways of expressing the essence of Ubuntu but what I feel that best sums it up is this, the world is not whole until I am whole, I am not whole until the world is whole. The United Church Zambia University faculty would speak in our discussions about Ubuntu, they would say, I am because you are and you are because I am. The foundation of humanity’s health and well-being reside in our ability to help one another heal and be whole. In this Season of Creation, we are reminded that Ubuntu extends beyond humanity. It involves all of creation. For if the soil is not healthy, we cannot be healthy. If the trees cannot do their God-given work, we cannot breathe. And as Texas, Florida and the Caribbean have recently experienced, if the power of wind and water are not respected, we cannot live.

The progress of humanity does not come free of cost. For every action there is a reaction. The National Council of Churches in the United States put out a Theological Statement on the Environment addressed to the people, corporations and industries of their nation. It is pages long and it’s worth reading. This line caught my eye and would not let me go as the Season of Creation asks us to tune our ears and turn our eyes to God’s call for justice for all aspects of creation. The line is this: “The whole Earth is groaning, crying out for healing–let us awaken the “ears of our souls” to hear it, before it’s too late.” I like to think we are making a difference in the world and our environment. The sight of that boy dropping his garbage was upsetting but I also know that the City of Calgary has worked diligently to deal with garbage, recyclables and compost with respect to Creation and to our surrounding environment. I know this well because my spouse’s sister was the engineer who headed up the composting plant in south Calgary and is managing the compost pick up from each of our homes. This project has been years in the making and we are finally able to minimize the rubbish we add to the landfill on a weekly basis. But let us not get complacent. Let us remember that progress happens when we encourage one another to be better. To do better. Let us remember we are to keep and till the very land from which we were created and to which we will return. Let remember that our personal healing is tied up in healing of the world.

“Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing. To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.” Wendell Berry—The Body and the Earth

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