Tag Archives: climate change

First Reformed: Is it the perfect movie for Lent 2019?

Ethan Hawke plays the disintegrating Pastor Ernst Toller of First Reformed.

Like other screenplays Paul Schrader has written (like The Last Temptation of Christ), part of me wishes I had never seen First Reformed. But I also can’t get its questions out of my mind. I think it might be the perfect movie to start off Lent 2019.

That is, it is perfect if you want to make the best use of your snow-covered Pennsylvania landscape for its stark shadows, deep cold, and demanding requirements. That landscape would be a perfect setting for the feelings of this movie, especially when the piles of snow get dirty. First Reformed is a trip to the dark side of one man’s spiritual journey — and your spiritual landscape may have a hint of his journey, as well. There is no music here, just the unnerving hush of the sound design. The camera seems to be looking for ghosts all the time, exploring some metaphysical absence. One reviewer said it reminded them of a poem by Robert Lowell recording an 18th-century preacher’s feeling that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” Ethan Hawke as Pastor Ernst Toller stares into the same abyss.

The perfect movie for Lent 

This film might be perfect for Lent if Lent is about discernment — about listening for God’s call, about waiting for God’s presence, and about an irrational hope for resurrection. Even though the austerity of the film’s vision wore me down, I could not help but worry whether Toller’s disintegration was leading to an ecstatic awakening or abysmal despair. Schrader is better at despair than hope, but he apparently wrested the script out of his hands before he cut us off from hope completely.

The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because it is so odd to see a film about the church as it is. It is a scathing but also sympathetic and realistic view. We have craggy Ethan Hawke with his bad haircut grappling with doubt, hopelessness and a crushing sense of guilt — an alcoholic punishing himself with self-examination in his empty-but-historic church building.  On the other hand we have Cedric the Entertainer playing Joel Jeffers, his plump, well-dressed counterpart — the pastor of a megachurch called Abundant Life Fellowship that owns the First Reformed building and calls it “the gift shop.” He is sunny, unreflective, pragmatic and caring to Toller’s suffering, self-condemning, wild and isolating. Together they are the church. Schrader wants us to learn how to hold joy and despair in each hand.

The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because the reality that loosens Toller’s grip on the unreality he is trying to maintain is global warming. What would Jesus actually do in the face of something that needs action or faces humanity with death? It is the first-world problem that cannot be solved with a clever advertising campaign or an updated OS. Schrader writes film-school screenplays so discussing what happens in the movie is not the same as a spoiler alert, so I will tell you a bit.  Toller is mourning the loss of a child and the end of a marriage. An affair with the Abundant Life choir director has ended awkwardly. His physical health is deteriorating along with his mental state. Then, right when I was tempted to switch to some more amusing Netflix offering, a young woman named Mary is introduced into the story and asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael, who is an environmental activist recently released from prison in Canada. Mary is “great with child” (of course), and Michael (as in the leader of God’s angelic armies, of course) can’t bear the thought of raising a child in the face of ecological catastrophe. I know many people who are finding or losing faith in the face of a pile-up of tragedy and crisis in their lives like snow drifts from a changing weather pattern.

One of the reasons the film stuck with me (like I can remember what happened, unlike after I enjoyed The Incredibles) is that there are many ways to describe what is happening to Toller after Mary and Michael push their way into his isolated life.

  • Is he having a midlife crisis? It certainly looks like one, but that seems like too weak a description.
  • Is he having a psychological breakdown? Some unhinged things definitely happen – like a surreal out-of-body experience in which Mary and Ernst are flown from bright stars down to an overflowing tire dump.
  • Is it a political awakening? He can’t help but agree with Michael that the country and the church are completely missing the point as they refuse to fight the oil companies and persist in turning faith into a fantasy.
  • Or is it a religious reckoning? Toller’s merciless journal and his awakened displeasure in being part of a church for which he did not sign up would lead us to think that.

Mr. Schrader doesn’t suggest that these elements are mutually exclusive. Instead, he shows how they are the barbed wire the pastor wraps around himself in the end. What we don’t know is whether the scourging cleanses or just kills.

Image result for cedric kyle first reformed
Cedric Kyles (the Entertainer) as Pastor Jeffers of Abundant Life Fellowship

I have hope in our alternativity

Schrader’s relentlessly hopeless view of humanity is always hard for me to bear.  In some way I don’t want to be talking about his movie at all, lest some poor refugee from the land of fundamentalism or Calvinism might watch it and the film ends up being like barbed wire piercing their already-tender spiritual flesh. Be careful!

But it may be the perfect movie for Lent this year, since the writer, ultimately, is calling us to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith, which has always been a basic use for Lent. It is a call for alternativity to a Church that succeeds at marketing and succeeds at laundering the ill-gotten gains of post-capitalism but which can’t stomach actual spiritual struggle and can’t stand up in the face of climate catastrophe, among other things. It can’t even talk about reality without folding into political camps or dividing up according to the ways of the world. It is so interested in self-preservation it would never go to the cross, lest that adversely impact its market share. And that is just a bit of how the film calls for alternativity, just like Lent.

I did not want to have the dialogue with the movie. It is just too hard. Then I realized I probably did not want to face Lent again, either. It is also rather hard. And part of the hardness of it goes back to the terrifying observation from Robert Lowell that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” I don’t want to face the reality or even the possibility of that. But that is exactly the kind of observation Lent calls for, isn’t it? So I think I’d better observe it.

If we aspire to alternativity and not merely to Cedric-the-Entertainer-like Christianity designed mainly for people committed to consumerism as their primary faith, then we need to start with the ashes of our empire dreams and personal salvation fantasies. Lent may not do that for you yet because you have never considered Lent seriously. I usually follow a sentence like that with, “And that’s OK if you haven’t considered it,” because I wake up every day with hope in God’s goodness, and you may yet consider it. But it is objectively not OK if you do not consider the loss of everything. Because not considering the death and resurrection of Jesus and not heeding the call to leave death and enter life could kill each of us and kill the whole world, which we might be quickly accomplishing.

The Sanchi, ice sheets, the Bible: Reasons to notice the crisis in Creation

Sanchi leaking all over Creation

This picture is the Iranian oil tanker Sanchi engulfed in fire in the East China Sea. On January 6 it collided with a Hong Kong-based tanker carrying grain and eventually sank eight days later. It was carrying 122,000 tons of condensate, a highly toxic and flammable mix of gas and oil products that is nearly impossible to clean up after a spill. The collision caused an explosion that sent thousands of tons of oil spilling into the ocean — at one point the spill was larger than the footprint of the Paris metro. The explosion killed all 32 crew members. It is still unclear what the impact on marine life will be. Globules of oil are washing up on the shores of Japan already. The substance can last in water for months and cause cancer and other complications at low concentrations. This spill is the world’s largest since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. [See Reuters great graphics].

The day the Sanchi sank, the Trump administration was finding out that only one percent of the millions of acres newly opened up for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve were finding interested lessees. It was the first day Trump’s porn star affair became public. It was the day he attacked Democrats over DACA. And it was the day when it was revealed that Russian hackers were attacking the Senate. The U.S. newscasters were almost uniformly uninterested in the Sanchi, distracted by Trump’s skillful manipulation of the media for his ongoing reality TV show. This might be one of those huge disasters you never heard about because you live in the United States.

Creation is changing

Meanwhile, last month evidence came in about the thin Arctic icecap and never-before-recorded high temperatures there. The extended warmth staggered scientists. In February, Arctic sea ice covered 5.4 million square miles, about 62,000 square miles less than last year’s record low — the difference is an area about the size of the state of Georgia. Sea ice coverage in February also was 521,000 square miles below the 30-year normal — an area nearly twice the size of Texas. Sea ice is still growing, but whatever grows now is going to be thin and easily melted in the summer. The new heat released by the open, warming water impacts the jet stream which researchers think accounts for the weird winter storms in the U.S. and Europe.

Despite the alarming evidence, last year Trump backed out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, looking for a better deal. Mr Trump has called climate change a “hoax” in the past – one perpetrated by the Chinese. The President said in his June 2016 withdrawal announcement that the agreement put American workers,  particularly in the coal industry, at an “economic disadvantage.” The Paris Accord “as drawn and as we signed was very unfair to the US,” he said. But on January 10 he said the U.S. might get back in if he could correct the bad deal. He dithers while we needed to get serious twenty years ago.

It is all very bad news for the world, as I am sure you already think.

97% of publishing climate scientists agree that human activity, mainly greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change, only 28%-51% of evangelicals (depending on the survey) agree.  We might want to excuse their skepticism to some degree. It is true that some in the  environmentalist movement are so religious about “Mother Earth” that they scare away traditional people. And it is also true that some people promote climate change arguments because they want to make a buck on “green” technologies — they also promote skepticism. And then there is the Trump affect.

Artists call us to care for creation
The Caring Hand — Glarus, Switzerland

Christians don’t uniformly know whether they should care for the creation, for some reason. I think we, of all people, need to be at the front line. If you need help with your conviction, here are some Bible verses that reinforce the point.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Genesis 2:15)

As the creation story goes, God gave humankind a command to tend, or keep the Garden. The Hebrew word for “tend” or “keep” means more than just keep it neat and tidy; it means “to guard” or “to watch and protect.” The other word in this verse that’s very important is “work” or as some translations more accurately say “to cultivate.” It is from a Hebrew word meaning “to serve.” So this verse could read: “The Lord God put them in the garden to serve it and to protect it.” Even if we did not have that verse, anyone feeling the earth with their toes instinctively knows its truth. Even if you don’t love the Creator, you know bad things will happen if you don’t take care of creation.

The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (Revelation 11:18)

God cares about the creation. Some say he is going to destroy it all and give a new heavens and new earth to his followers. Since it is all going to burn up, why worry what happens to it? Others (like me) say that God intends to restore the earth and reconcile all creation to its rightful place in relationship with its Creator. We are either part of the restoration or the destruction.

Anyone who tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, and anyone who takes care of a master will be honored. (Proverbs 27:18)

This is a double proverb. If you tend the tree you’ll receive fruit. Are you tending a tree or just pillaging fruit? What’s more, the one who tends a fig tree will probably tend after other things as well. A master is looking out for people who can tend their own business well. That kind of person could oversee a master’s business. We might not be able to tend the world but we can tend our own little corner of it and do what we can where we live. We have a master looking for partners in redemption and our reputations begin in our own backyards.

You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. (Numbers 35:33)

God clearly commanded Israel to not pollute the land. The command here is to never pollute it with the blood of vengeance — sanctuary cities are being established! But even if this is not a direct word about never polluting the earth with carbon emissions and plastics, the principle can’t be ignored. The land must be stewarded and protected from what pollutes it.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it. (Psalm 24:1)

In capitalist parlance, God holds the title on Earth and will hold us responsible for how we care for it. We are here by invitation. As we previously read in Revelation 11:18, those who abuse and destroy the earth will get justice. Knowing that the earth is not really ours, we should treat the earth with the respect of knowing it is God’s. The Lord is more than willing to share it with his beloved children.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:49)

Jesus sums it all up with love. We are not excused from caring about what happens to our neighbor because of principle, profit or preference. If you suspect Jesus is just talking about caring for members of the Body of Christ, remember they are severely endangered all across the world due to everything from sinking cities to disappearing polar bears. Not caring is not an option.

One final verse: Psalm 46:2-3, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” Bad things are happening, but our salvation is not secured by undoing climate change. Undoing climate change springs from our love and our connection to our Creator in Jesus Christ, through whom everything was made. Redeemed people redeem the earth — or die trying, their destiny secure.

That sound is Trump tromping on the Paris Pact for Pentecost weekend.

The howls of protest from around the globe are hopefully ringing in the president’s ears. Donald Trump’s executive order to leave the Paris Climate Agreement has been generally decried:

  • CNN: Trump to Planet: Drop Dead
  • The New Yorker: Donald Trump’s “Screw You” to the World
  • Foreign Policy: Abandoning Paris Is a Disaster for America
  • Esquire: Are You Proud to Be American Today?
  • Slate: We the Victims
  • The Guardian (UK): Trump Just Passed on the Best Deal the Planet Has Ever Seen
  • Washington Post: Trump is Abdicating All the Country’s Moral Power
  • TalkingPointsMemo: Paris Decision Was Driven By the President’s Rage and Fear
  • Arnold could not resist his regular Trump takedown

Most of the time, activist Christians just join the howl. There is room for that. But Pentecost, yesterday, promised more, didn’t it? Surely Jesus was fulfilling the beautiful, old promise of Isaiah as the Spirit was poured out during the festival of the first fruits; it was the ultimate demonstration that God’s word waters the earth and brings sustenance – all the way from the seed to the bread seeds provide.

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

 You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.” — Isaiah 55:10-13

Like the trees miraculously clap, it is just as amazing that we have become God-praisers who dare to hope — and dare to act on that hope in desperate times.

Trees Clapping by Brenda Bogart

The climate catastrophe makes it clear that we live in desperate times. We need to repent in order to survive. Angela Merkel and Xi Jinping seem to know this. The president elected by evangelical Christians seems to think the 70 jobs gained by opening a new coal mine in PA is worth ecological disaster.

I say “we” need to repent because, whether we like it or not, the United States government has drawn its boundaries around us. But I also can say that “we” of Circle of Hope, probably have a lot less to repent of when it comes to climate change. From the beginning of the church we have been aware and active. Lately, we even have a compassion team devoted to the new concept of “watershed discipleship,” which calls us to live as partners in our respective watersheds, connected to the earth and connected to others who share our bioregion. Long before that new concept, we were going with the old, Biblical teaching of being a tribe inhabiting our place, forming a new community that was not beholden to the arbitrary lines of the political map, but connected as a people filled with the Spirit. We loved trees, but even more, we loved with those hand-clapping trees Isaiah sees — enlivened, as we are, with the new energy of God’s redemptive presence.

One of our friends treated us to Wendell Berry via Daily Prayer not long ago. He also claps with the trees. More than a quarter century ago Berry was arguing, before it was fashionable, that “global thinking” was often a mere euphemism for an abstract anxiety or passion that is useless in the struggle to save real places. “The question that must be addressed,” he contended, “is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land.” Only love and responsibility for specific places – what native Hawaiians call aloha ‘aina – can motivate us to struggle on their behalf.

Some people are working toward Berry’s vision from the outward in by rediscovering a bioregional identity. That’s great. I come at it from a more Anabaptist approach. In a real sense, I think we are more like the Hawaiians who carry the reality of aloha ‘aina in them. They identify the watershed; they love it; they aren’t created by it. The Holy Spirit is alive in us. The earth does not make us. Like our Cell Plan teaches about being an organism:  “We aren’t waiting; we aren’t merely prospective; we aren’t laboring under the condemnation of some structure to which we need to conform. We exist as who we are. We are being built by God. We feed on the Spirit and develop.”

Image result for watershed discipleship team

Even though we work from the inside out, wherever we are planted, there is little doubt that the movement of the Holy Spirit right now must include “re-place-ment.” Our Watershed Discipleship team is an outpost of an intellectual movement (mostly fronted for us by Ched Myers) that reflects Kirkpatrick Sales’ 1985 primer Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision. Sales defined a bioregional sense of place: “Bio is from the Greek word for forms of life . . . and region is from the Latin regere, territory to be ruled. . . . They convey together a life-territory, a place defined by its life forms, its topography and its biota, rather than by human dictates; a region governed by nature, not legislature. And if the concept initially strikes us as strange, that may perhaps only be a measure of how distant we have become from the wisdom it conveys.” Ched Myers and others are even more specific, and talk about being “intertwined within a larger system called a watershed” in which the inhabitants are linked by their common necessity and use. In a sense, we are cradled in the basin of our watershed where the organisms are interconnected and interdependent.

I find Myers’ imagery appealing. It fits us and it fits the Bible. Our approach to social action as Circle of Hope has always been to embody it. We are an incarnation of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ, living in our own skins in our own place. While reactive people are howling at Trump, we may join the chorus, but we do so from a place. No one can deprive us of our connection to the Creator and the creation. We are the new creation in Jesus. We have never been subject to the “political geography” of dominant cultural ideation (at least that is our conviction), so when someone calls us into the “topography of creation,” they seem to be describing our native territory.

Trump’s blatant skepticism of climate change highlights a moment when our sense of being grounded by the Spirit in a community living in a discernible place becomes an even more relevant aspect of our mission. As Myers teaches, we are in a “watershed moment of crisis.” Acknowledging a bioregional sense of place helps the unaware become part of the context they are missing. It is time for restoring humanity’s right relationship with creation, which can be clearly experienced in our watershed. The Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum is often paraphrased to sum it up: “We won’t save places we don’t love; we can’t love places we don’t know; and we don’t know places we haven’t learned.”

In the face of humankind’s self-destruction, Isaiah’s vision is one of joy, not despair. The Lord is the Creator. God’s renewing presence waters the earth and makes it like our mother. Everyone is an armchair evolutionist these days, so they think the earth is all we’ve got, so the earth is our mother. From that viewpoint, Trump’s poor leadership is even more horrifying. But we “go out in joy,” knowing that the hope of the world, the hope for our watershed, the hope of our church and our cell is the promise of God delivered in Jesus. Everywhere we turn, we deliberately and relentlessly plant trees and clap with them and in that become spiritual redwoods ourselves.