Great Plains, Great Change

Empire Builder Eastbound @ Coram MT(Creative Commons image by Loco Steve on Flickr)

Amtrak attracts folks who enjoy the journey as much as the destination. The Empire Builder runs a century-old course from Chicago, through Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and past Glacier National Park in Montana to Seattle and Portland.

A park ranger describes the glacial terrain and its natural history. Thirteen thousand years ago, the entire area was covered in ice. Catastrophic floods pushed boulders far past their origins into eastern Washington and down the Columbia Gorge to western Oregon.

In the 1850s an estimated 150 glaciers populated the mountains, most of them still present when the park was founded a century ago. But now, due to climate change, only 23 receding glaciers survive. The ranger says that by 2030 most of these will disappear. Glacier National Park will become a monument to what was lost.

But according to the U.S. Geological Survey, it is not only natural wonders that will disappear. Pine beetle infestations will spread, as will fires, depleting forests and those that thrive in them. Earlier seasonal melts mean a depleted water supply for humans, animals, and plants. Drinking water, in short supply in many places already hurt by climate change, will be scarcer in this region too. Insufficiently valued, such free gifts of the ecosystem will become priceless.

Along the Empire Builder line, communities are acting. Seattle boasts the first U.S. carbon-neutral electric company and a well-used system of light rail, trolleybuses, streetcars, buses, and ferries. Portland created the U.S.’s first city climate plan, in which per-person carbon emissions are hoped by 2050 to be less than one-tenth of 1990 emissions. Minneapolis adopted 26 sustainability indicators, such as infant health, tree canopy, green jobs, and community engagement. Chicago has adopted five umbrella strategies: energy-efficient buildings, clean and renewable energy sources, improved transportation, reduced waste and pollution, and adaptation to changes already happening.

Changes abound in towns and countrysides as well. Sandpoint, Idaho, (population: 8,100) boasts a Transition Initiative to create “sustainable, resilient, vibrant community,” and the gusty plains of eastern Montana and North Dakota are sprouting windmills. If this is true in conservative Empire Builder states, it holds true across the country.

The month of St. Francis’s feast day is an excellent time to increase congregational awareness of human impact on the natural world and its impact on us.

October’s semi-continuous Old Testament readings broadcast human closeness to the natural world:

Lamentations 1:1-6 (Oct 6) describes the destroyed city of Jerusalem, where princes have become like stags finding no pasture.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 (Oct 13) presents a letter from Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon, advising them to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.”

Jeremiah 31:27-34 (Oct 20) predicts that God will once again sow and plant the people.

Joel 2:23-32 (Oct 27) teaches that rain and bountiful harvest come from God.

The complementary readings are more ecologically subtle, but these stand out:

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15 (Oct 13) describes God’s cure of the Aramean commander Naaman through washing in the Jordan River.

Sirach 35:12-17 (Oct 27) characterizes God as an impartial judge who hears the prayers of widows and orphans.

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 (Oct 27 alt.) depicts God as bringing rain for the harvest.

The Psalms keep the connections among God, humans, and the natural world firmly in view. While something can be found in all of them, these stand out:

Psalm 37:1-9 (Oct 6 alt.) depicts the wicked as perishable like grass, not to be feared nor envied.

Psalm 66:1-12 (Oct 13) claims “all the earth worships” the God who turned the sea into dry land.

Psalm 121 (Oct 20 alternative) calls God the maker of heaven and earth, and protection against the elements.

Psalm 65 (Oct 27), a beautiful description of God’s provision, presents God as the “hope of all the ends of the earth,” who establishes mountains, waters the earth, and provides grain, causing pastures to overflow with flocks and vegetation.

Psalm 84:1-7 (Oct 27) describes God’s temple, where even small birds find homes.

The readings from 2 Timothy and Luke commend perseverant faith, qualities necessary for any courageous initiative, including environmental advocacy:

2 Timothy 1:1-14 (Oct 6) reminds Timothy to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you …for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

2 Timothy 2:8-15 (Oct 13) encourages hope, saying, “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.”

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 (Oct 20) exhorts, “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience.”

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 (Oct 27) retells Paul’s own story of divine assistance and assurance.

Luke 17:5-10 (Oct 6) reminds readers that faith need not be great — the size of a tiny seed, along with faithful service.

Luke 17:11-19 (Oct 13) comments on the grace of gratitude for God’s gifts.

Luke 18:1-8 (Oct 20) explains the “need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Luke 18:9-14 (Oct 27) counsels humility, recognizing that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”