Monday, April 14, 2008

Green Sins?

April 22 is Earth Day.

I remember the first Earth Day when I was a young adolescent and Boy Scout. We pulled a red, Radio Flyer wagon around our neighborhood collecting newspapers that our fathers helped us take to a recycling location. In return, our county government planted dogwood trees along a major route in the community.

Recycling was actually a rather popular activity in the county. We had neither public nor private curbside garbage service and on Saturday mornings citizens loaded their garbage cans in the back of their station wagons or in their car trunks and took all their rubbish to a public school parking lot where county garbage trucks waited. You had to dump it yourself into the chomping, mechanical maw of the truck and then you could put newspapers in a walk-in dumpster. No matter who you were, rich or poor, this was how you had to get rid of your trash and recycling was part of the deal. It was quite a community gathering.

Sometime in the 1980’s we seem to have lost interest in do-it-yourself environmentalism. We went for more powerful automobiles at the expense of fuel efficiency. We began to recycle less and consume more disposable goods and power- whatever the cost. Today, the lessons of financial conservatism and frugality learned during the great depression are unknown to generations of young Americans.

What role does religion play in all this?

At one time, the social philosophy known as the “Protestant Work Ethic” taught that prosperity is a sign of God’s favor on account of an individual’s personal righteousness. While we still adhere to the importance of work ethic, religious Americans don’t often see prosperity as a sign of righteousness any more. But at the same time, many Americans don’t hold the old time religion view of personal sin either. A common view now is that we are all basically good people who are misled into bad choices. It’s a kind of therapeutic view of human sinfulness.

So, the Vatican, not the expected spokesman for Reformed Protestantism, is getting tough on sin.

They’re even getting tough on environmental sin. In March, Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti listed some “new” sins during a newspaper interview in Rome. Among the social sins on the Vatican’s updated list are: stem cell research involving embryo destruction, human cloning, and ecological offenses. It isn’t exactly clear what environmental sins are from the Reuters report of this story, but apparently they are generally classified as acts that cause harm to the environment and therefore threaten the human race.

The question is: in a global culture in which people decreasingly define human nature as sinful, will the Vatican proclamation have any impact at all on the faithful?

Friday, April 04, 2008

Why Won't Jesus Take Me To Heaven?

At age forty, I left corporate America to follow the call to ministry.

I was well educated, having been steeped in a refined broth of rationalism and critical reasoning, read all the appropriate European authors, perched my fanny on the erudite ruins at Delphi, and stumbled wide-eyed through Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem holocaust memorial. I was experienced as a world traveler who had skied the Alps, gone elbow to elbow with Chinese businessmen for platefuls of ugly fish in Kuala Lumpur restaurants, and lived amongst the “lost Woodstock generation” who shuffled around the west side of Greenwich Village in their Birkenstocks, avoiding exposure to the sun. I was even married with three young kids, the youngest a mumbo-jumbo yacking, couscous tossing extrovert.

I was ready for anything and knew it. What’s more, I knew that I knew it.

In seminary, professors work hard to relieve students of all their goofball, folkloric misconceptions about why and what we believe. They teach you that the Bible doesn’t really say what you think it says unless you’ve personally translated the old papyrus scrolls from the original Greek or Hebrew for yourself, dissected the grammar, and consulted all the scholars who’ve spent devoted and low paid lifetimes figuring out things like whether Paul actually wrote the letter to the Ephesians or if it was written by a follower or even an impostor.

Now I was really ready, theologically and Biblically locked and loaded.

And then began my hospital pastoral care rotation, clinical field work that could burn the corn-based wax shine off Helen of Troy’s golden apple. This is where you face the test of learning whether you can render all that theological and Biblical understanding into something meaningful in people’s lives. People who don’t care about the Greek or the Hebrew or the authorship of the letter to the Ephesians.

People who just want some answers.

The nurse administrator who ran the desk on the blood and organ diseases floor was sharp as a tack. Her smooth, perfect skin was somewhere between the color of maple syrup and green tea and her eyes never quite rose above the horizon of her reading glasses. She could see people like me coming before we’d even driven into the parking garage or waived our newly laminated security badges for the first time. She could eradicate that waxy shine from your golden apple faster than battery acid.

I introduced myself and asked for a patient list.

“Whatcha bring me?” she monotoned without looking up from her paperwork. There were several lists sitting on her desk.

“I, I beg your pardon? I’m sorry. Do you mean some kind of authorization or something?”

“I mean a muffin or a latte or something. But you don’t appear to have anything like that. Do you? No treat, no list.”

I stammered something unintelligible as she took a long drag off a diet soda.

“Go down this hall to room 41. Start there and work back. Pay attention.” She finished these gruff instructions by skewing her lower jaw slightly sideways and poking her tongue against her molars in a kind of disgusted way. I started down the hall.

Something I didn’t know about a diabetes patient on welfare is that either the person has feet or doesn’t and entering room 41, I immediately noticed that the sheets at the foot of the bed were curiously flat up to the knees. I swallowed and stepped forward to greet Irene with some sort of empathy not found in the doctrines of either Calvin or Luther. I was trying not to gaff and say something stupid like “How are you feeling?” or “I’m the chaplain today, is there something I can do for you?”

I spoke her name and asked where she was from. I asked about her family. I asked about her home and how she had gotten to the hospital. I asked when she might be released. I asked anything I could in order to avoid talking about her medical condition and her missing limbs. She was eighty-nine and lived in a small town in the mountains north of our city, had no children, a brother in a distant state, and no other family.

After a while, I asked if she wished to pray.

“No,” she mumbled weakly, taking long, slow breaths every couple of words. “It’s too late for prayer. I just want to know something. I want you to tell me something chaplain, pastor, whoever you are.”

“Okay,” I responded quietly, reluctantly.

“I just want to know why I’m still here. I’m sick and not gonna get better. Been in here three times this year. All they can do is amputate again.”

I said I was sorry and that she was probably still in the hospital because the doctors still had some hope.

“Those doctors don’t have hope. They’ve got walls full of degrees and microscopes and clean white jackets but they’ve got no hope. Anyway, I don’t want to know why I’m still in the hospital.”

Her eyes moistened and streams of tears silently slid down the sides of her ashen face and into her matted, white hair as she lay flat on her back.

“I want to know what only you can tell me, chaplain, pastor. What you have to tell me. I want to know why Jesus is leavin’ me here this way. Why won’t he just take me to heaven today, to be with my Mama?”

Thursday, March 27, 2008

On Faith and the Environment

Warmer days with longer periods of sunlight have been distracting my kids from homework lately and I can’t really blame them. But, Spring weather hasn’t distracted my attention from the price of gasoline or how quickly it drains out of my Volvo wagon at a paltry 17 miles per gallon around town.

According to the business magazine Forbes (, one burned gallon of gas translates to 20lbs of CO2, a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. So, driving just the U.S. average of 15,000 miles in a year makes me personally responsible for over 17,647lbs of carbon dioxide. You can figure your particular carbon footprint at

Let’s see: 15,000 miles divided by 22mpg (average fuel efficiency according to Department of Transportation statisticians based on 55% city and 45% highway miles) times 20lbs per gallon times 247 million U.S. passenger vehicles. Well, you do the math.

Of course, maybe you’re a global warming skeptic. Maybe you think that a single cold winter disproves long term, statistical data. Some would-be debunkers of human contributions to warming even cite, as primary causes, clinically immeasurable, naturally occurring events such as volcanoes and flatulence from bovine and teenage boys.

On the other side of the argument, practical observers in business have concluded otherwise.

John Hofmeister has taken a pro environment stand as President of Shell Oil’s North American operations. In a Charlie Rose interview (see the video at, Hofmeister affirmed his industry observation that human efforts do significantly impact on global warming based on the amount of carbon emitted each year and the scientifically calculable effect per ton of carbon in the atmosphere.

Ray Anderson, Chairman of flooring maker Interface, Inc., has been guiding his company toward a goal of zero negative environmental impact for decades. Disgusted by the sheer amount of waste and rate of extraction of carbon resources, Anderson has innovated to drastically reduce waste, use fewer raw materials and decrease emissions from manufacturing. Anderson’s personal commitment even includes the swapping of out his executive luxury vehicle for a compact hybrid.

Are these guys are just kooks? If so, they’re highly successful kooks. Interface gross sales in 2006 were just over $1 billion and Shell USA revenues topped $26 billion. These are not tie dye wearing granola munchers but savvy industrialists whose agendas are productivity, efficiency, return on equity, profit margins, and shareholder value.

That said, Anderson has a serious indictment of the religious community.

In his book, Mid-Course Correction (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2000), Anderson stated that he was turned off by the church specifically because, in his experience, its views did not support environmental reality. It’s true that the environment has been a divisive, hot potato issue for the religious community in the last decade but if you want to make value choices informed by faith, environmental concern need not be a dilemma.

Simply put, human beings have a mandate from God to be stewards of creation.

Creation’s problem isn’t the debate between evolution and the book of Genesis, but our dismissal of inconvenient Biblical truths like God’s absolute claim over all of it. However it got here, we think it’s our creation, not God’s. We’ve got the mineral rights, the surface rights, and the air rights too.

Well God has made us many promises, but has never given away the farm.

The famous line in the first chapter of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over… every living thing that moves upon the earth” is not a license to freely exploit natural resources for profit. It’s a gracious provision of sustenance. Moreover, we Christians should re-acquaint ourselves with Leviticus 25:23/24 which commands: “… the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.”

You don’t have to be a tie dye wearing, granola muncher or liberal theologian to make ethical value choices about the environment. Just read your Bible thoroughly. All of it.