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I think every church leader should listen to and contemplate episode 23 of Professor Debra Rienstra’s Refugia Faith podcast. It’s entitled “Purple Zone Refugia: Leah Schade on Creation Crisis Preaching, the Prophetic Church, and the Trickster Christ.”

Prophesy seems the watchword I am contemplating this week and it began with a strategic listening to episode 23 in my ear-buds, seeking only to distract myself from an afternoon run. I’ve now listened to it three times.

Sunday’s sermon was a reflection on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In the parable, the rich man, suffering in hades, pleads with Father Abraham to raise someone from the dead to go and warn his five brothers. Father Abraham replies twice that they had had Moses and the prophets and that they should have listened. Implying, I suppose, that their impending doom is their own fault.

And as I write, I am watching Hurricane Ian ramp up to a category 5 while it pounds Florida’s gulf coast. Per Katherine Heyhoe, Ian was predicted to make landfall as a category 1 storm. By this morning, it was upgraded from a category 4 as winds exceeded 158 miles per hour. The news cycle has already abandoned the devastating floods in Pakistan and the fires out west, the historic heatwaves in China and Europe and the bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef. Context, as they say, is everything.

In Debra’s episode 23, she talks with Reverend Dr. Leah Schade about helping the church find its prophetic voice in the context of addressing the climate crisis.

This will surprise no one who reads my blog posts here, but I think that at this moment, addressing the climate crisis is humanity’s most urgent task and I think that that also makes it the church’s most urgent task.

The climate crisis is no longer (if it ever was) a technical problem to be solved with greater, more sophisticated science. Science describes for us the magnitude of the problem, its drivers, and what projections for the future likely are. But addressing and mitigating the climate crisis is a problem of owning our culpability in creating it and working to prevent further damage and correct the inherent deep injustices to poor people, our children, and non-human creation. Essentially, it’s a matter of loving our neighbor with sufficient conviction and agency. It’s the moral issue of our time – and that puts it squarely in religion’s wheelhouse.

The conversation with Rev. Dr. Schade covers substantial intellectual, moral, and theological territory and it’s necessarily difficult to see the fine details when you are traveling at a rapid pace. But, I was fed by the Gestalt, the emerging sense that her scholarship was deliberately probing the church’s role as a prophetic voice in a world where climate crisis is the context. Rev. Dr. Schade relates a survey of protestant pastors that she did in 2017 where she estimated that environmental issues were among the lowest priorities for sermons in the past year. In 2021 she repeated the survey and found that the percentage was about 50%. She celebrated the increasing trend (and I do too) but the magnitude, only 50% of preachers addressing environmental issues in the past 12 months is a scandal of modern western Christianity (assuming it’s representative).

Framing it as a climate crisis metaphor, I wonder where we wealthy Christians are in the parable. Likely, and maybe at best, we are the five brothers in peril of ignoring the prophecy. But is the church the prophet? Should it be? I think so, or at least I want to be.

And if that marriage between the parable and the climate crisis seems a little forced, Leah and Debra’s conversation moves into a discussion about creation itself being included in the crucifixion/resurrection narrative and that we model Christ when we practice a “self-emptying” (Greek: kenosis). Rev. Dr. Schade advocates a “…getting out of our own ego, our egocentrism, our, what I would call, anthropocentrism—so thinking of human beings as the center of everything, when in fact we are not. We are part of the larger web of life.”

In my reading that seems to be an emergent theme among people who approach the climate crisis from the perspective of religious faith and non-religious starting points. It’s worth noting that Rev. Dr. Schade notes that addressing the climate crisis will require cooperation across faiths and non-faith.

The task for the church is to integrate a theology of creation rooted in kenosis knowing how radical that is in a culture that idolizes the convenience and wealth supported by profligate use of fossil fuels and that seems blind to the injustices and damage that those idols are causing. The task is to move from simple consciousness-raising to calling for actions to a “discourse for long-term cultural and individual transformation (Rev. Dr. Schade).”

The climate crisis isn’t merely one among a list of discrete topics that Christians should consider and pray about and that pastors should address in a sermon from time to time. It’s the context of our 20th century North American faith. It’s the threat multiplier (Katherin Hayhoe) making problems of injustice and despair worse. Rev. Dr. Schade and Prof Rienstra wrestle with these questions with integrity on our behalf. It’s worth a listen.

Photo: Hurricane Ian is pictured from the International Space Station. NASA. Source:  Hurricane Ian is pictured from the International Space Station | NASA

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 

13 Comments

  • Tim Van Deelen says:

    Correction: Yesterday morning the Accuweather account tweeted that Hurricane Ian had been upgraded to a category 5. Last night, most other outlets were reporting landfall as “nearly” or “almost” a category 5.

  • Uko Zylstra says:

    Thanks for your column.
    Jn 3:16 also provides a significant theology of creation. “For God so loved the cosmos that he sent his one and only Son….for God did not send his Son into the cosmos to condemn the cosmos, but to save the cosmos through him.” God’s redemption of the cosmos reflects that God created the cosmos out of love. So God’s love for us should also be the context of our love for the cosmos and our care for the cosmos which includes mitigation of climate change and working towards a flourishing of all God’s creatures in the world.

  • John Castricum says:

    Our Church has joined the “Season of Creation” liturgical cycle, an ecumenical initiative that began with the Eastern Orthodox. This year’s theme is “listen to the voice of Creation.” Has anyone else joined this worship cycle?

  • Julia Smith says:

    My church (Eastern Ave CRC, Grand Rapids) has had a 3-week season of creation this month. A small but necessary beginning. We are also in the early stages of thinking about rooftop solar on our building.

  • George Monsma, Jr. says:

    My church, Sherman St. CRC, Grand Rapids, observed the liturgical season of creation last year and is doing so again this year, and in all likelihood will continue to do so in future years.

  • KC says:

    According to the Climate Center at Florida State since 1926 there have been 20 hurricanes that have hit the state. 1926 category 4 Great Miami Hurricane, 1928 category 4 Lake Okeechobee Hurricane, 1935 category 5 Labor Day Hurricane. There was actually a time from 1975-1992 where Florida experienced no hurricanes. These huge storms happened before this climate change fervor(insanity) was ever invented and these storms will continue to happen long after us. The storms are more costly now simply because there are more people living in Florida.

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    The New York Times has an answer for KC today (Sept 30) in their article, “How Hurricane Ian Become So Powerful” which ends with these two paragraphs explaining why warmer oceans=stronger hurricanes.

    “More than 90 percent of the excess heat from human-caused global warming over the past 50 years has been absorbed by the oceans, and a majority of it is stored in the top few hundred meters.

    Scientists say that while climate change has not necessarily increased the number of hurricanes, it has made them more powerful, as warmer ocean waters strengthen and sustain those storms. The proportion of the most severe storms — Categories 4 and 5 — has increased since 1980, when satellite imagery began reliably tracking hurricanes.”

    • Kc says:

      Actually there were more category 4 and 5 storms from the years of 1926-1949 so that totally debunks your warmer water theory. Climate insanity hadn’t even been invented between 1926-1949 but during that time all the hurricanes were category 4 or 5??

      • Tim Van Deelen says:

        According to NASA and NOAA:

        “Since 1995 there have been 17 above-normal Atlantic hurricane seasons, as measured by NOAA’s Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) Index. ACE calculates the intensity of a hurricane season by combining the number, wind speed and duration of each tropical cyclone. That’s the largest stretch of above-normal seasons on record.

        So while there aren’t necessarily more Atlantic hurricanes than before, those that form appear to be getting stronger, with more Category 4 and 5 events.”

        According to climate scientist and expert science communicator, Katherine Hayhoe (who provides links to the primary sources), the warming climate means:
        1) Hurricanes intensify faster (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-08471-z)
        2) Become stronger overall (https://www.nature.com/articles/nature03906)
        3) Produce more rain (https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/2017GL075888
        4) Move slower (causing more damage, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0158-3?ftag=MSF0951a18)
        5) Affect larger areas (https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1912277116)
        6) Cause greater economic damage (https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1912277116)

        • Kc says:

          The storms cause greater economic damage simply because more people live in Florida now than ever before. So of course they’ll cause more economic damage. My point is that well before this climate change hysteria was invented, Florida experienced many category 4&5 storms. From 1926-1945 category 4 and 5 storms were “normal” or above average….every single one of them.

          • Tim Van Deelen says:

            The paper referenced above (#6) addresses that. It analyzed data for the US which presumably is mostly FL. Their analytical model included terms for per capita wealth, population, inflation, and spatial differences in exposure. Conclusion: recent storms are more damaging and expensive consistent with climate-driven phenomena referenced above.

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