Katharine M. Preston is an ecumenical lay preacher and writer, concentrating on issues of social justice and climate change.
Posts By This Author
An Experiment in Neighborly Love
THE UNEXPECTED CONVERSATION happened near the end of church coffee hour. As I headed toward the kitchen to drop off my cup and a small plate dotted with crumbs of coffee cake, I found myself in a brief exchange with some fellow parishioners. Perhaps something in the sermon that Sunday prompted it; I don’t recall. I do remember the clear revelation that this conversation somehow had to continue, because for the first time I was talking about a dicey political situation with fellow parishioners far more conservative than me.
Fed up with avoiding these conversations, I suggested: “We need to continue this.”
As in many rural areas in the U.S., we find ourselves deeply divided politically. Our president continues to promise to save America from what he deems wrong, which, he assures us, is most everything, especially from the last eight years. He keeps us busy chasing the rabbits he releases from his tweets, running all over the place. Some, opposing his views, march, write myriad letters to our representatives, sign petitions, and flood our newspapers with commentary. Others who support the president write letters to the editor praising his leadership and thanking him for following through with his promises, even when thwarted by the courts or an uncooperative Congress.
At times the divide is breathtaking.
Changing the World with Joy
I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day. — E.B. White
ON A GORGEOUS FALL DAY, I bundle up just a bit and go sit on the rock under the apple tree in the middle of the field. The low-angled sun pours its subdued warmth onto the splashy orange of the maples, transient yellows of the tamarack, and faithfully green cedar. Further to the west, the mountains cut a postcard-perfect silhouette against the seasonally pale blue sky.
Such grace, warming my heart with joy.
A loving God calls us to experience such profligate joy. Now, in the latter decades of my life, time picks up its pace at an alarming rate. So I often promise myself to seek more opportunities to sit on rocks.
But instead, each morning, the genes of my activist mother, the teachings of my faith, and probably a bit too much of my own hubris conspire to bring on the conflicting desire to “improve” (well, okay ... save) the world.
So I strongly identify with E.B. White’s dilemma, softened by his gentle humor-with-a-touch-of-wistfulness.
Working for social justice seems like forever. I am weary of being tedious to those around me who do not understand my seemingly quixotic campaigns. I am weary listening to the current loud, vicious, largely irrelevant public clamor surrounding issues to which I am dedicated. I am weary knowing that those of us preaching minority positions that were once slammed as unrealistic have been proven right. But it took so long: civil rights, the Vietnam War, apartheid, climate change. As we slogged through our protests and The Powers That Be didn’t listen, lives were lost, billions of dollars spent, time wasted. I am impatient: Why can’t the arc of the moral universe run, rather than just bend, toward justice?
A Burning Truth
BETWEEN 6:30 AND 7 nearly every morning, a dark rumble drifts up through the chilled air from the railroad tracks at the bottom of our hayfield in the Adirondack foothills of New York. A line of more than 100 black tanker cars, mostly full of fracked Bakken oil from North Dakota, rolls southward. They will pass the field where our neighbor’s kids play, then close alongside beautiful Lake Champlain, which defines this region, and on to Albany, where the oil will be put on barges and floated down the Hudson River to New Jersey, to be stored or refined.
Tanker cars like these have been blowing up recently. An accident north of us, over the Canadian border, flattened a downtown and killed 47 people. These cars carry a mix of crude oil and volatile compounds arising from the fracking process, making them dangerously flammable. I worry about my small town’s volunteer fire fighters, all of whom I know personally and admire greatly, who do not have the expertise or the equipment to deal with an accident like that.
Watching the tanker cars, I am also haunted by a scene seared into my memory five months ago. We are driving east along U.S. Route 2 in North Dakota, our small camper in tow, trying to pass through Williston, smack in the middle of the Bakken oil fields.
As the sun sets, we see hundreds of oil and gas rigs flaring excess volatile gases in huge plumes of orange flame. Processing plants spew fumes of God-knows-what. There are row upon row of metal trailers, boxes really, actually used as housing for people. Unrelenting traffic beats a path on the undivided highway under furious construction, with no breakdown lanes or turn-offs for miles. Huge water tankers and oil trucks force us to move onward at 60 mph; there will be no rest for us here, as all campgrounds, gas stations, and parking lots are filled with the rigs of the temporary workers.
Mourning for the Earth
The most precious place on Earth for me is a camp on a lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. During the next century, climate change will chase northward things that I cherish. Spruce, tamaracks, sugar maples, balsam fir, moose, mink, and loons will no longer grace the shores and waters of that lake. Like most people in northern climes, I see the changes happening already. I have to fight hard against despair, for my personal losses, yes, but also for the universality and injustice of the calamity, which already affects so many of the poor and innocent.
WHY IS IT so hard for people to respond effectively to the reality of climate change?
Changing people’s minds—with facts, tables, and predictions—has proven extremely difficult. Even showing people the miraculous beauty of the planet alongside the predicted losses is not working. Guilt, anxiety, and anger can be motivating forces, but they have debilitating side effects: They are all soul-destroying.
So I wonder about our hearts. Have we ignored our emotional and spiritual connections to the planet? Could the noise swirling around climate change—science, politics, media blitzes, as well as the weather disasters themselves—drown out the voice of a loss so profound that it rests unnamed in our souls? Could our breaking hearts be part of the reason we are immobilized?
In the 1960s, Rachel Carson’s image of a “silent spring” due to the proliferation of pesticides was as heartrending as it was controversial. Carson was ridiculed, her predictions dismissed. The corporate world paid millions to have her silenced. But eventually the love of bird songs won out. People read Carson’s book, grieved at the prospect of a silent spring, spoke up, and insisted the chemical-company-supported politicians ban DDT.
Bravo for finally addressing climate change head-on (December 2009).
Suggestions for Green Seminaries - WEB EXCLUSIVE
Integrate books on religion and the environment into the syllabi of existing seminary courses , from biblical studies to pastoral care.
The Green Gospel
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How community-based investing transforms individuals - and religious institutions.