Apocalypse. Armageddon. Plague. Judgment Day.
Even in the San Francisco Bay Area, a region of the country noted for its low percentage of church attenders, religious language is being used by many to describe the recent fires, smoke-filled air and Wednesday’s surreal day-long darkness with the sky above glowing orange.
Jennifer Davidson, professor of theology and worship at Berkeley School of Theology, posted on Facebook, “I have way more appreciation for the everyday, run of the mill Egyptians in the days leading up to the exodus. Seems we are in the 9th plague (darkness) today.”
Pete Shaw is pastor of Crosswalk Church, an American Baptist church in Napa. The congregation has been pressed into service as an evacuation center following fires, floods, power outages and an earthquake in recent years.
He reports that skilled nursing facilities in California’s fire-ravaged wine country are seeing increased rates of dementia in their long-term residents.
The working hypothesis is the increase is related to the anxiety caused by the pandemic and the steady stream of disasters.
Travis Norvell, pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis, put it very succinctly in responding to a friend from Oregon’s announcement that his home had been destroyed by fire: “Damn.”
Most of us understand fire occupies a needed place and provides an essential service in the ecosystems of the West Coast.
We also understand that human-caused climate change means the elements of the various ecosystems are becoming more extreme.
Our dry seasons are drier. Our wet seasons are wetter. Our fire seasons burn longer and hotter.
The number of acres scorched by fire far surpass those of previous fire seasons. The number of days with unhealthy, even hazardous, air quality proliferate.
My daughter, a resident of Oregon, makes it plain: “The earth is sending us a message.”
Life in California, Oregon and Washington this summer is representative of what people all over the United States are experiencing: a noticeable decline in our quality of life.
As Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times, reports, “The newest Social Progress Index … finds that out of 163 countries assessed worldwide, the United States, Brazil and Hungary are the only ones in which people are worse off than when the index began in 2011.”
In response, faith communities from many religious traditions are proclaiming that we humans need to repent of our failure to be good stewards of the created order, to stop doing further harm to the atmosphere and the environment and to support policies and practices that repair the damage we have done.
We are finding ways to acknowledge we need to heed the message the earth is sending us.
On the strange Wednesday morning that was Sept. 9, 2020, one of the Zoom Bible studies of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church met to continue our reading of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The focus of the day was chapter 15, the Apostle’s exploration of the mystery of the resurrection.
At first, it seemed strange to be reading this “Easter” text on a day it felt like 10 p.m. at 10 a.m. And yet (a marvelous biblical phrase), we came to understand that Paul was writing to a community, like ours, living with great uncertainty.
We came to see he was promising a better day to some folks who, like us, knew some bitter days.
One of my colleagues in ministry at Lakeshore is Carolyn Matthews, our pastor of Christian education. Carolyn is an expert in the Negro spirituals. They were the subject of her dissertation.
She has a song for every situation. On Thursday morning, I asked her what she was singing on Wednesday.
She laughed and said, “Actually, I was singing about the sun coming out tomorrow. You know, the one from Orphan Annie.”
A little bit later she texted me. “Time is filled with swift transition. Naught of earth unmoved can stand. Build your hopes on things eternal. Hold to God’s unchanging hand.”
I understood she was sharing a song, a prayer, for the people of the West Coast in a season when Judgment Day doesn’t seem like an abstract concept.
Jim Hopkins has been the Senior Minister at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, California, since 1989. He has served as Chair of the Board of Trustees at the American Baptist Seminary of the West and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.