Wednesday, December 26, 2007

What I’m Reading: The World Without Us


The World Without Us. Alan Weisman. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.

American journalist Alan Weisman has written a brilliant and disturbing meditation on the fate of humanity and the fate of the world. Call it a work of non-fiction, call it a thought-experiment, call it speculative science, but this book calls upon the expertise of archaeologists, naturalists, urban engineers, artists and many other professions to answer a provocative question. What would the world be like if the entire human race disappeared?

The answer may be surprising to some, and unsurprising to others, such as gardeners, who try to keep nature at bay on a daily basis. Thinking ahead over a variety of time scales, Weisman predicts that nature, with its vast resilience, would come back to reclaim the world. Without us, in a few years, our farms, engineered crops and domestic animals would vanish. In decades, our homes would succumb to weather and begin to collapse. In centuries, our great cities and bridges would fall. In millennia, there would only be the faintest traces of our civilisation.

Weisman has found places in the world where this process of reclamation can already be seen. The Demilitarized Zone between the Koreas and a strip of forest between Poland and Belarus harbour trees and animals that have vanished elsewhere. In Varosha, a resort town on Cyprus abandoned after the Greek and Turkish war of 1974, buildings are vanishing and animals are returning. “Flame trees, chinaberries, and thickets of hibiscus, oleander, and passion lilac sprout from nooks where indoors and outdoors now blend. Houses disappear under magenta mounds of bougainvillaea. Lizards and whip snakes skitter through stands of wild asparagus, prickly pear, and six-foot grasses. A spreading ground cover of lemon grass now sweetens the air. At night, the darkened beachfront, free of moonlight bathers, crawls with nesting loggerhead and green sea turtles” (p. 97).

The good news in this book is that the sheer resilience of nature may be greater than our capacity to destroy the earth. The great sadness of the book is that humanity will most likely do yet more damage before we either learn better or go extinct ourselves in a collapse caused by human greed and runaway population growth. Weisman’s descriptions of these remaining natural gems such as the Polish primeval forest are heartbreaking for their beauty and their fragility. If the Koreas were to unify, developers of the suburbs already pushing towards the DMZ would want to claim this land where red-crowned cranes, among the rarest on earth, still find refuge.

For anyone who cares about the fate of the earth, as the scientists and naturalists he interviews so clearly do, there is the understandable temptation to see the premise of Weisman’s thought-experiment, the removal of humanity, as a desirable solution. The most extreme example of this mindset is the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT), which would prefer us to gracefully exit the stage by an end to breeding rather than extinguish ourselves in resource wars and starvation. In this scenario, a genteel version of the end described in P.D. James’ The Children of Men, the last human beings would end their days caring for the earth as a retiree might dedicate themselves to a garden. “The last humans could enjoy their final sunsets peacefully, knowing they have returned the planet as close as possible to the Garden of Eden” (p. 243). An extreme solution, admittedly, but in the musings of esteemed biologists such as E.O. Wilson, as they engage with Weisman’s thought experiment, there is a wistful tone. “The world”, Wilson speculates, “would mostly look as it did before humanity came along. Like a wilderness” (p. 190).

Weisman, to his credit, avoids the trap of seeing humanity as the problem and our removal as the solution. He is too much in love with the beauty and surprise of the world, and a future where there is no one left to appreciate its beauty is clearly painful to him. He is clear however, as other environmentalists are, that there is only a little time left, a few centuries at most, for us to have a future on the earth. His proposed solutions are few, but one that he advances with some conviction is a proposal by the Vienna Institute of Demography that would see every fertile woman having only one child. In this scenario, world population, currently at 6.5 billion, would begin to fall off at the middle of the 21st century, reaching 1.6 billion by 2100. By comparison, a UN scenario where the birthrate is assumed to slightly over 2 children per female (it was 2.6 in 2004) sees the world’s population reaching 9.5 billion by 2060. Weisman does not speculate whether this second scenario (he does not discuss worse ones) is sustainable, though he is not encouraging. In his preferred scenario of a depopulated world, there is the hope the lucky 1.6 billion who remain would enjoy an Edenic world without self-suicide as a species.

At such far-more-manageable numbers, however, we would have the benefit of all our progress plus the wisdom to keep our presence under control. That wisdom would come partly from losses and extinctions too late to reverse, but also from the growing joy of watching the world daily become more wonderful. The evidence wouldn’t hide in statistics. It would be outside every human’s window, where refreshed air would fill each season with birdsong” (pp. 272-273).

Weisman, who would describe himself as a spiritual person (his final chapter is entitled “Coda: Our Earth, Our Souls”) grounds his spirituality in a Gaia-centered sense of balance with the world, where our artistic and creative expressions can be admired by future human generations rather than be puzzled over by future visitors to our dead world. He is dismissive of mainstream religion as being committed to “alternate futures” which have no commitment to the fate of the world. His brief comments on Christianity seem limited to acquaintance with dispensationalist, “left-behind” theology. “In Christianity”, he writes disdainfully, “the Earth melts, but a new one is born. Since it needs no sun – the eternal light of God and the Lamb having eliminated night – it’s clearly a different planet from this one” (p. 270).
For Christians who care about the world’s future, however, there is much to learn and admire from this book. Those of us who take the doctrine of creation seriously (even if we understand creation to have occurred in geologic time rather than in a literal seven days), we have a theological imperative to care for the planet just as fiercely as the most atheistic naturalist. As for the fate of the world, rather than adopt a simplistic understanding of Revelation as Weisman’s “different planet” throwaway does, there are fruitful lines of inquiry for Christians to pursue. One example is N.T. Wright’s lectures on the fate of creation from Romans 8, in which the world awaits, groaning, for its redemption. Rather than using up and throwing away a depleted old world, might not God’s new heaven and new earth be a restored and redeemed place, where human sin, including its environmental ravages, are cured? Weisman’s references to an Edenic world ring especially true for Christians. After all, the doctrine of creation teaches us that God intended Eden for a purpose, to be the home of all creatures, including humanity. In this respect, Weisman’s book is a gift for Christian thought and action.

An Anglican Ministry to Homeless Veterans in Pittsburgh

Troubled veterans find heavenly haven at Shepherd's Heart
By Mike Wereschagin
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The softly-lit, green-hued hallway is quiet and warm, and the 10 men inside their rooms are safe for the moment.

Only memory can get to them here.

The Rev. Michael Wurschmidt walks slowly past the closed doors, a sentry in cleric's clothing.

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Troops Absences Tough on Holiday Traditions

By Brian Hicks
The Charleston Post and Courier, Tuesday, December 25, 2007

They say it's the most wonderful time of the year, but there are some who might feel otherwise.

It's impossible to pick them out of a crowd. They're shopping at the mall, stopping by neighborhood Christmas parties with their kids, decorating their homes in red, white and blue lights.

But while most of us spend Christmas with our friends and families, they are separated from theirs by oceans, entire continents

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Monday, December 10, 2007

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Preached on Sunday, 9 December, 2007, at Grace Church, Ilderton and St. George’s, Middlesex Centre

“The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” (Isaiah 11:8)

This Friday I watched a toddler taking those first steps that bring a thrill of pride to every parent. One of his shoes had gone missing, and he had a runny nose, but those confident steps across the hall and that little turn in the middle had all the beauty of Wayne Gretzky on a breakaway. Wasn’t it just yesterday that I baptized this little guy, I thought? Now he’s upright and moving and that Christmas tree in the church hall may be safe from his explorations. And so it begins, one of those moments when we let our children take their first steps into the world of risk and danger. Those first steps will lead to independence and maturity, with a few bumps and scars along the way.

A few hours earlier on that same day, another family, also connected to this parish, learned that their son had just been killed in a traffic accident. A young man with his life ahead of him, all that potential, taken away from us in a few seconds. While others will enjoy the festive times and reunions ahead, those who knew and loved him will know dark and bitter days this Christmas. At some point they will be thinking, wasn’t it just yesterday that he took his first steps, said his first words, took his first driving lesson? And, as we would in their shoes, they will likely ask, how can God allow such a world of risk and danger?

This Sunday, the second week of Advent, we hear in the powerful words of Isaiah a vision of how God wants to change the world. “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” (Isaiah 11: 8). This morning, in the midst of the shock and grief of parents, families, and parish friends, scripture speaks of a world where we need no longer fear for our children. We hear of a world freed of menace and danger, where death or injury can’t strike at the deepest and most vulnerable places of our hearts.

These are words of hope, but what sort of hope do they represent? Is this peaceable kingdom that Isaiah talks about merely “over the rainbow” talk, a sweet vision of paradise in the sweet by and by, but with only the faintest comfort for our hope and fear? But is it just possible that this a robust hope worth hoisting aboard, a real promise from a real God who means what he says?

If you watch the Discovery channel or animal documentaries on TVO, you know that the wild kingdom can be shockingly wild. A cute little penguin can be swimming in the water and can be seized by a seal, which is in turn torn apart by a killer whale or polar bear. This is nature “red in tooth and claw” as Tennyson once described it. Nature shows constantly remind us not to be na├»ve about nature, but we find in the Bible a similar clear-eyed realism (I owe this insight to some online exegesis by Frederick Geiser). The Psalmist describes how "The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God" (Psalm 104:21). How do we get from hear to the idyllic kingdom that Isaiah describes?

When Isaiah wrote his vision of a peaceful kingdom, it was a time of violence and fear. Israel in the eighth century BC was besieged by the Assyrian empire. The great kingdom that King David had built was in danger of being destroyed completely, which explains Isaiah’s reference to David’s father, Jesse, as the “stump of Jesse”. Like that old tree that until this winter stood outside Grace Church, Israel was in danger of becoming nothing more than a remnant and a memory. And so Isaiah looked not to a human rescuer, because he knew how fragile and how fallible humans were, but rather Isaiah looked to God and the one who God would send, the Messiah.

One of the great themes of Advent is hope – like Isaiah, we express the hope that God will be the Messiah, the one who comes to save and deliver his people. If you remember how a Carols and Lessons service works, one of the first stories we hear is the story of Genesis and the consequences of humanity’s decision to walk apart from God. In Genesis 3, God says that Adam can no longer eat from the fruit of paradise. Instead, ’ “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field (Gen 3:17-18). That same story from Genesis is picked up in one of our favourite Christmas carols, “Joy to the World”, in the third verse:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessing flow
Far as the curse (or “our sin”) is found. (Common Praise #154).

Another hymn that we sang last week expresses the same Advent hope that God will come to rescue his people:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel;
that mourns in lonely exile here,
until the son of God appear.

Who is the one who will come and save us? Isaiah seems to speak of a great king and hero, who will strike the earth and blow away the wicked . But when that hero’s work is done, and when the wolf and the lamb are lying down together, who do we see in the midst of this seen of peace but “a little child”? Who is it we wait for in a few weeks but a “little child” lying in a manger in the midst of animals, adored by kings and shepherds? It’s a deceptively peaceful image, because that child is born into a world of great danger. Again we remember the wisdom of the old carols, for as the Coventry Carol reminds us,

Herod, the king,
In his raging,
Charged he hath, this day,
His men of might
In his owne sight
All yonge children to slay.

The Holy Family will flee in the night as countless refugees have done since then, Herod’s soldiers commit an atrocity, leaving families to weep and mourn their children. This incident is part of Matthew’s nativity story too: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18). Mary herself, years later, would also weep mother’s tears as they lowered her son down from the cross and gave him to her for burial.

The wisdom and the realism of Christmas is that Emmanuel, God with us, comes to share our life and our world with us as it is. It is a world of beauty but also a world of pain and sorrow, still the world of the curse that Adam and Eve were sent into, still the world of nature red in tooth and claw. But giving his son to be born into the world is God’s first step to say to us, “I am with you, you are not alone”. The coming of Emmanuel, our Christmas ransom, begins with the news that God comes to be with us. That same message is picked up in today’s gospel, in the words of John the Baptist. John calls us to come back to repent and come back to God, but when Jesus comes down to the Jordan he will not come as a terrifying judge but he will come to share a common baptism with us. Once again we see Emmanuel, God with us.

How and when will the world finally be changed? How will the ground be freed, finally, of thorns and weeds? When will the lion and the lamb lie down in peace? When will our children be able to walk without fear, their safety and our hearts no longer vulnerable? These things are ultimately for God to grant, and they start to come into focus at Easter and the resurrection, but they begin, I think, with us. In Isaiah’s vision there is work for God’s people to do. Isaiah reminds us of the poor in our midst, he reminds us to deal with one another in equity and compassion and righteousness. Isaiah calls us to live in peace, to live in the knowledge of God and of his word. Likewise John the Baptist calls us to turn away from our old lives and live as God’s people and bear good fruit. This is the work that Advent calls us to, this is the work and the way of life that God calls his church to do. May we always remember as we wait, no matter how dark and how painful it may get, that God is truly with us. Amen.

©Michael Peterson+ 2007

Monday, December 3, 2007

A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Preached 2 December, 2007 at Grace Church, Ilderton and St. George’s, Middlesex Centre

“Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24:44)

More than anyone I ever met, my mother loved Christmas carols. She loved them so much that she would walk down the sidewalk singing them out loud – in August! Needless to say, that caused me some embarrassment when I would go out with her as a boy. One of her favourites was the Advent hymn, “People, Look East!” that our choir sings as an anthem today. Another one that she loved to sing was the traditional “Christmas is coming”. She loved to make up silly lyrics to these songs, which made it even more embarrassing for me, but deep down I think my mother loved the joy and anticipation of these carols. My mother was willing to wait for Christmas. She didn’t sit and wait, because there was plenty to do – baking, decorating, church work, visiting – but essentially she was willing to wait. She knew what was coming, she knew what it meant, and the time in between was a time to be savoured and enjoyed.

Some people aren’t keen on waiting for Christmas. There’s been a debate behind the scenes about tonight’s service of Carols and Lessons at Ilderton United. Some felt that the carols should be the carols of Advent, with their focus on waiting, preparing, expecting. Others felt that we should sing the Christmas carols that people know, love, and don’t get to sing enough, and they carried the day. So tonight if you go, you will hear and sing favourites such as “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Angels from the Realms of Glory”, and that’s fine. I think that in these kinds of disputes, the host is always right, and I think it’s important that our churches come together in worship and witness as God’s people. But I do think that the Advent hymns, despite their unfamiliarity to many, have much to teach us. The hymns of Advent, along with the season’s rituals such as the Advent candle, and the scripture readings with their emphasis on expectation, are all designed to help us prepare for the coming of that special visitor, the Son of God. In all its forms, Advent has one purpose – to prepare us for the coming of God.

How do we feel about the coming of this visitor? What might his entrance into our lives look like? Is it cause for joy, or does it make us nervous? Our readings today might cause a variety of reactions. First we heard Isaiah’s prophecy, the classic Advent promise of light in the darkness. The prophet Isaiah speaks of God’s house coming to earth, of nations and peoples leaving their quarrels and walking together. These are words of hope for people weary of conflict, whether it’s the global conflict of war and terrorism, the intimate conflict of a troubled marriage or divided family, or the interior conflict of a troubled soul. Christ is coming to heal and to arbitrate, to settle conflicts and end conflicts. That’s a visitor we would all welcome.

But then we hear St. Paul talk about using the time remaining to us as a time of spiritual preparation. It’s pretty serious business as he describes it. If we want to walk in that light that Isaiah talks about, first we have to get out of what Paul calls the “works of darkness”. Paul warns us that if we want to be ready for the coming of “the Lord Jesus Christ”, ready to put him on like a new clean garment, then we need to undergo nothing less than a spiritual makeover, throwing off old habits and old ways of living and thinking.

In Matthew’s gospel, the visitor himself, Jesus, warns us as Paul did that God’s coming is linked to our salvation. The image of Noah’s flood, captured on our bulletin this morning, isn’t just an image of the unexpected. It’s also a warning that if we are still found sleeping, still found in our old clothes, then we risk, to borrow the title from Timothy Findley’s book on the flood, being classified as “not wanted on the voyage”. Like Paul, our Lord also warns us to get busy, because we don’t know when he’s coming. We often think of the second coming with trumpets and fanfare, but Jesus warns us that he might come like a thief in the night, when we’re in bed watching Letterman.

Put all these themes together and it’s unnerving. The promise of hope and light, but the warning that we better not sleep through it. The challenge to undergo a spiritual makeover, and the warning that we better not fail, like the people who weren’t ready for Noah’s flood. Wow, that sounds like a lot of work, and little time to do it in. So where do we start? How do we manage our Advent preparation?

First, let’s remember where we are. We’re at the Eucharist. We’re about to encounter our Lord in the meal we share together, in the sacrament of his body and blood. We do this because we want to be changed for the better, and we know that only Christ can do this for us because of who he is and what he did on the cross. We know from our tradition that we have to prepare for to take Communion. You may remember some of your confirmation classes on preparing for Communion. If not, here’s a reminder from a great Anglican thinker, Austin Farrer:

"It is hard to prepare for Communion, because it is hard to face the truth. But it is not at all complicated or puzzling. You have merely to accept what you know God demands of you, and to renounce what you know he forbids you, and to be sorry. Remember something to thank him for, and someone to pray for, and you have made your preparation." (Quoted by the Rev. Gavin G. Dunbar, in The Anglican Digest, Advent 2007, p. 8)


Understand this idea of spiritual preparation, and you’ve almost got the idea of Advent. But this spiritual preparation is anticipated, isn’t it? You know when you walk in here that there will be a Eucharist this morning. All you have to do now is add a bit of the uncertainty and the vigilance of Advent.

Think of Our Lord’s use of everyday language – “drinking, marrying”, working “in the field”, “grinding meal” – in today’s Gospel. Jesus was saying that the people of Noah’s time had no warning of what was coming. To them it was just one thing after another. Put it in today’s language and you start to wonder, how might God show up on your morning commute or when you’re out ploughing or chatting with a friend at Tim Horton’s?

Ask yourself, who might I meet this Advent? Who can I visit? How can I bring Isaiah’s light and hope to someone? How can I be more aware of what God may be calling me to do in my immediate surroundings? How can I best use the time before Christmas? What can I change about myself? Who can I pray for? Who can I pray with? Seen in these terms Advent ceases to be the fearful anticipation of some sudden catastrophe. Advent starts becoming manageable, even fun. You may even find yourself, like my mother, bustling about, whistling People Look East or Christmas is Coming, in joyful anticipation of our Advent guest, our Lord Jesus Christ.

©Michael Peterson+ 2007

Healing the Wounds of War

Healing the Wounds of War by Benedicta Cipolla, from the PBS Religion and Ethics Website.
War is, in some ways, the ultimate spiritual crisis.

By its very nature, it requires participants to perform acts that would be considered legally and morally wrong in civilian life. "Your whole life, regardless of religion, you're told, 'Don't kill, don't kill, don't kill.' Then all of a sudden it's, 'Here's a gun.' It's hard to reconcile that," says Linda McClenahan, a Dominican nun, trauma counselor, and former Vietnam Army sergeant who lives in Racine, Wisconsin.

In a 1995 study, 51 percent of veterans in residential post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) treatment in a Veterans Affairs facility said they had abandoned their religious faith during the war in which they fought. In the same study, 74 percent of respondents said they had difficulty reconciling their religious beliefs with traumatic war-zone events. Battle creates moral confusion, and it can leave a soldier spiritually as well as physically wounded.

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.

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