Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Preaching Climate Change

            One Friday, before Joe left for work downtown, he opened his Waze app and typed in “work” as his destination. Waze continuously tracks all of its users while they drive, and by doing so, maps out the fastest route to any destination. Along the way, Waze uses the electronics, algorithms, street maps, computer code, and even geography to do so. It is a very cool app. And so, though Joe didn’t understand the engineering or science behind Waze, he loves how it saves time, every day. He trusts it.

            This morning, Joe’s drive was not without incident. He listens to Radio 590, The Fan. But Joe accidentally hits a button on his steering column, and his kid’s rap music comes on. So, Joe takes his eyes off the road to change the station back, for just a second, and in that moment, a car in front of him slams on its brakes. Joe would have hit that car except that his car automatically slammed on its brakes too, sensing that an accident was imminent. Joe didn’t even know his new car had an accident avoidance system—but this morning the engineering and science behind it saved him anyway. Joe was impressed.

            At work, early, Joe booted up his computer and surfed over to 23andMe, a genealogical research lab that reads your DNA and compares it to the DNA of other people who have sent theirs in. A few months ago, Joe sent 23andMe some saliva in a tube. Joe is an adopted child and has never been able to connect with his birth family. This morning, Joe’s results have finally been posted. He discovers three likely second cousins. Joe doesn’t know it yet, but later that month, as a result of this DNA matching, he is going to meet his birth-grandparents. The science is way above his head, but he trusted the biologists enough to give it a whirl. 

            That afternoon, Joe knocks off early. He’s going to fish for brook trout at his cottage with his buddies. Joe doesn’t know this, but forty years ago, his lake nearly died due to acid rain. When scientists raised the alarm, Ronald Reagan and Pierre Trudeau enacted a series of laws to reduce Sulphur emissions, so that Joe’s lake and many more like it are now full of fish. In fact, thanks to those scientists, he’s always counted on catching them.

            Joe buys and sells bonds for a living. He has a good life. Between algorithms he doesn’t understand, the engineering in his car, nuclear DNA and mitochondrial genome science that is way over his head, and governmental action on Sulphur and ozone emissions, science has made his life a lot better. He’s also a two-time cancer survivor, thanks to MRIs, radiation treatment, and new chemo drugs. He never doubted that his doctors were the best, and would use the best techniques to heal him. And now, he hopes to live a long, happy life.

            Modern sciences: math, engineering, biology, chemistry, have made our lives better. Joe hardly thinks to thank the Nobel prize winners, GM engineers, 23andMe biologists or Sunnybrook doctors for all this good stuff, though. He takes it in stride. He expects it. We all do. We hardly ever say prayers of thanksgiving for these gifts—unless it’s under our breath, as when Joe muttered, “thank god,” when he avoided an accident. We trust today’s science and the scientific method it uses, and depend on it for the most comfortable lives humans have ever lived.

            Anyway, Joe and his buddies go to the cottage. They catch a lot of fish. And at the end of the day, they light a fire down on the beach, pour themselves a scotch and talk. Of course, they do. It’s the good life.

            Eventually the conversation turns to climate change. A new government has come into power. It has cancelled several environmental programs. A new leader has publicly expressed doubt as to whether or not climate science can be trusted or whether anything can be done about warming temperatures, anyway. 

            “Yah,” says Joe. “I don’t believe in it either. How can they know? Do these scientists think they’re gods? Anyway, the weather changes every week, every year,” says Joe. “Two winters ago? It was cold. Water main burst in front of the house. Basement flooded. Don’t talk to me about climate change. It’s a hoax. Some pointy headed guys in lab coats trying to get promotions. I’m with Ford and Trump and the pipeline companies on this.”

            Well, what do think? Is climate change a hoax or not?  Canyoutrust the overwhelming consensus of scientists when it comes to climate change? Like you trust your doctor or the physicist who figured out how to make MRI machines work? Or here is another question. Even if—and there isn’t, but let’s just pretend—even if there was doubt about the long- and short-term impact of climate change, would you dare take a chance on it? Cross your fingers and hope for the best, because that is easier than doing something about it? Like, would you drive your car if the brake pressure light went on? And for how long? How much are you willing to risk to leave the status quo alone?

            Look, we all depend on the findings and theories of science, every day, for every piece of our good lives. We trust the science behind auto radar and Waze, the science that makes computers work and that predicts tides and eclipses. We trust the science of DNA to find relatives and rapists, and we have, in the past, trusted scientists to clean our air and reduce acid rain and clean up the great lakes. 

            And now, scientists tell us that climate change—unless we act now—is going to transform our world so dramatically, so fundamentally, that our grandchildren are going to suffer serious harm to their living standards. It will result in massive movements of climate-change refugees unlike anything we have seen so far. Climate change will contribute to the largest extinction events since the dinosaurs. 

            Mind you, it isn’t a few lone scientists saying so. All of them are saying so—or, at least, such a high percentage of them that I wouldn’t want to bet a plug nickel on the tiny, tiny group of them that still question some aspects of these trends. The latest report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns us that unless serious efforts are made over the next ten years to change course, it will be too late. I won’t go through all the data here, since tons of it is at your fingertips. Read the report yourself. But I warn you that there are some groups out there, mostly funded by libertarian or very partisan industry organizations, that try to tell a completely different story to provide cover for a certain brand of politicians to deny, deny, deny. History will roundly condemn these short-term, me-first, see-no-evil, hear-no-evil leaders.

            Meanwhile, as a society we refuse to deal with more and stronger hurricanes, and rising sea levels, and dying corals, and plunging insect and amphibian populations, and droughts in Africa so severe that whole peoples are migrating to Europe, or drowning to get there. 

            Here in the West, our wealth and—to some extent—our geography, may protect us somewhat in the short term. But you just wait.

            The writer of Psalm 19 exalts God for the beauty of creation. But he, or she—the Psalmist was most likely a man—also warns his audience that when it comes to God’s laws, including stewardship of the beautiful garden of creation; when it comes to God’s laws it takes an act of will to abide by them and uphold them. You have to choose. The Psalmist warns us not to be fooled. He says:

            “Clear me from hidden faults. Keep back your servant from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.” And who are the insolent? I’d say those who, for whatever personal or financial or political reasons, would rather, for short-term gain, destroy the earth as we know it than make costly, sacrificial changes today.

            When it comes to climate change, false prophets are crying, “Peace, Peace” when there is no peace. And if enough Joes choose these prophets of all’s well instead of serious climatologists who dare to tell the truth in difficult times, you can be sure that ruin and defeat will follow for us as surely as it did for Old Testament Israel.

            So, what is it going to be? Are we going to go with our most comfortable, uniformed hunches, the ones that require no sacrifice, no changes in habits, no tax increases, no action on behalf of the planet or its creatures or our children? Or will we make big sacrifices, like our great-grandparents did during the depression, and our grandparents did during the Second World war—will we make big sacrifices in what we buy and how we vote, how we run our corporations and which ones we invest in—will we make big changes now, for the sake of—well, everything good that we have taken for granted for too long?

            An idyllic future will not fall into our children’s laps, from the heavens, regardless of the choices we make. Joe—who otherwise would never question the opinion of a single scientist, never mind a scientific consensus—Joe and the insolent politicians who have his ear are, biblically speaking, fools. Peace, when it comes to climate change, peace must be waged by us, now, tooth and claw, urgently, if we are going to turn the corner on this.

            The heavens may declare the glory of God, but right now the earth is crying in agony because of human idiocy. I wish I could say something more comfortable this morning. I wish I could say something more constructive. I wish I didn’t have to say anything about this at all. 

            But this morning, Joe is not going to have the last word, at least not here. We are in serious crises, as serious as that of the cold war or the bubonic plague. And, until we act, personally and as a society, to tackle climate change, you will not hear “peace, peace,” from me.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Are You Our Next Minister?

Lawrence Park Community Church (United, Unlimited, Unorthodox), where I am a minister, needs a second minister! He or she will be a co-pastor with me. The ad that we've put in the Christian Century and in The United Church Observer says: "This position will include preaching, pastoral work and team building with a focus on youth program leadership. The new minister will play a key role in helping us launch a new evening service which will explore the role of Christianity and spirituality in the modern world. It will be a service for believers and doubters. The new service will include the following elements: debates, Tedx-type speakers, meals, and secular but spiritual music. The bridging of traditional and innovative approaches will require a recruit with flexibility and vision as well as strong preaching skills."

Worship with the Brian Barlow Quartet, Easter 2018
Of course, there is a backstory. Our long-time minister of pastoral care. Eric Bacon, is (sadly) retiring at the end of the year. I will share pastoral care with the new minister--depending on our skill mix and preferences. And the new worship community we're planning to launch in September of 2019 is a big deal, a huge rock that we're working together as a congregation and staff to launch successfully. The focus will be on making Toronto a better place to live--and extending that to the world when we can.

Well, and there is our morning worship too. We have an unmatched choir that sings a wide variety of traditional and contemporary genres. We do an old-style, low-liturgy Methodist type of service that's tall on community and come as you are and coffee and other refreshments. We mix in jazz, themed Sundays (the church dressed up as the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz, with Auntie Em's potluck after; or four weeks of music and choir on Les Miz). Our morning service is a going concern. But we want to extend our impact!

We have already hired a program manager with deep expertise in social media, marketing, and event planning to work this project (and others) full-time.

So, the new minister and I will sit down, figure out what we love and what we're best at, and split the difference! We're really keen to find someone who thinks outside of the box, who has an imagination, who has stage presence, and who is deeply engaged in making the world a better place. I'm easy to get along with!

We invite American citizens to apply if they are members of a denomination in official fellowship with ours, such as the United Church of Christ. We invite LGBTQ people to apply. We invite persons of colour to apply. We are inclusive and welcoming--and working on becoming more so.

This is an adventure job. An "I can't believe there is a liberal church trying this stuff" job. We'll make sure that you are remunerated in a manner that allows you to live in Toronto. When you arrive, you will find just about the friendliest, low-anxiety, high-fun church going.

If this sounds like it is for you send an email inquiry to Judi Pressman, and ask her for a position description and more background. Her email is judi@lawrenceparkchurch.ca

I want to hear from you!

Monday, October 8, 2018

Thanksgiving Nostalgia

       Rolling Stone magazine called this Beatles song the best song of the twentieth century. It goes like this:

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they're here to stay
Oh, I believe in yesterday

       Yesterday. Remember? Canada’s Happy Days. The Mounties were beautiful in scarlet and above reproach. Archie’s biggest problem was choosing between Betty and Veronica. 

       The past. Remember? Everyone who wanted a factory job had one at the Motors in Oshawa or GE in Peterborough. Women stayed home and wore aprons and the only people who said “me too,” were kids who wanted dessert.

       Yesterday. Remember? Expo 67. The Leafs won a Stanley Cup. Paul Henderson scored—not once or twice, but three times. Kids played baseball at the park and road hockey in the streets. Screen time meant The Brady Bunch or I Love Lucy.

       The best of times. Donald Trump misses them, so he promised to, “Make America Great Again.” During the presidential race he was asked by a journalist when exactly that was. Trump said, “well, America was great when Ronald Reagan was president!” 

       So, do you remember what Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan was? You guessed it. “Make America great again.” We have always believed in yesterday.

       And lest we think that is just an American thing, don’t forget Doug Ford. He said, “We will return our province to where it belongs. Ontario will be open for business.” He said this when our unemployment rate was near historic lows and businesses are complaining that they can’t hire the help they need. 

       We believe in yesterday. Nostalgia is a worldwide phenomenon. Chinese president Xi Jinping calls for “a great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.” Russia’s Putin insists that the fall of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical disaster that he will help Russia recover from. After the Brexit vote, British politician Vince Cable said, "Too many were driven by a nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white, and the map was coloured imperial pink."

       Yesterday. Actually, the best of times, but also the worst of times.

        Not quite fifty years ago, mortgage rates were 18 percent and unemployment over 13 percent. More than 400,000 people died of starvation in Ethiopia. The Vietnam war raged. Residential schools sundered children from parents and tribes. Not long ago most cancers could not be beaten, the cold war filled us with fear, labour strikes were regular occurrences, and acid rain had killed many of our lakes. Looking a bit deeper into the past, there was WWII, the holocaust, the 1918 flu epidemic, as many as twenty million starved to death by the Soviets in the Ukraine, and we lived, on average, twenty years less than we do now. 

       Nostalgia has a sweet aroma, but as a plan for the future, it is poison. Our memories are very selective.

The truth is, as Calvin so aptly observes, when you think about it, our lives now are actually pretty nice. A lot of kids don’t have as good a home life as we do. We have a lot to be thankful for today. We can’t really complain.

       Which is not to say there are no problems. Our lives are always a mess of broken windshields and relationships and worries of deep concern about big worldwide problems. I write about those problems regularly. But we will never find a solution to those problems by idealizing a past that gave them to us. We must find solutions to those problems, in part, by seeing things as they are now.

       I’m a writer, and so perhaps I have an over active imagination. But I play an odd game with myself, sometimes, when I’m driving through town, by myself, at night. 

       I imagine that my great grandfather, Willem Suk, who died in 1909, is sitting beside me in my car. Willem died of lung disease from working in a cement factory after spending most of his adult life selling groceries door to door out of a dog cart. His family was left in heartrending poverty. Anyway, as I drive along, I describe for my grandfather wonders he could never imagine: jetliners landing at Pearson passing overhead, Audis and Buicks, electric street lamps and three-bedroom bungalows with in-door plumbing, air conditioning, and my groceries in the back seat. He would have been amazed that his own tragic life did not result in generations more of pain and poverty for his descendants, the same pain and poverty that was commonplace for his ancestors.

       Today is Thanksgiving. Let’s embrace how far we’ve come in order to tackle the problems we have.

       The truth is, our future can be even more bountiful, more life-sustaining than our lives are today, so long as we do not wallow in yesterday, but rather, roll up our sleeves, and with hearts full of gratitude, live by ideals worthy of the future we want for our own grandchildren.