This May I have been taking a course on Ecology and Worship. The primary thrust of the class has been to consider and act upon the challenge of creating liturgy that is more mindful of God's creation, in such a way as to discourage the kind of separation of one's faith from how one treats the planet. That is a hugely oversimplified description, but hopefully it will do for now.
I came into the class for a few different reasons: I really, really find joy in creating liturgy; I do believe the church has not been very good at calling humanity to its right role in relation to God's creation; I have this strange idea that what happens in a church's liturgy sticks more than pastors may realize, including the corollary that if nothing happens, that sticks too; and did I mention that I really like creating liturgy? I've written a bunch of it, for sure, and maybe if I'm not too much of a sluggard I'll be writing more.
Another, back-of-the-mind issue that was at play was a level of concern about the condition of creation itself. We've not been particularly good stewards of it, and we may well be to the point of reaping the whirlwind where we have sown the wind. I'm not the type inclined to dismiss what 98% of experts say on a given subject, so the possibilities of what this planet and everything living on it might be looking at in the not-distant-enough future are of concern. I'd also say that even if one decides that one can't make up one's mind either way on the subject, why in the world would one not err on the side of caution?
Note: if you are the type who prefers to dismiss what 98% of experts say on a given subject, you probably don't want to stick your nose in here. You won't change my mind on the subject, but you may very well change my mind about you, and not necessarily for the better. And if you go the Mark Driscoll route and contend that we might as well crank up the SUVs because God's gonna burn it all anyway, I will take note of your hideously bad theology and particularly unloving nature for all the world (or at least the four people who read this) to see.
End of rant. For now.
At any rate, there was one other latent challenge in this class. Despite how goosebumpy and sentimental it is to get together and sing "Circle of Life," nature is not always a pretty place. Predation exists. Animals prey on other animals. Heck, even some plants prey on other animals. Climatologically, storms get destructive even when the planet is in the best of shape. How do we balance such concepts with the notion that creation is good, it is created of God, and our worship ought to include praise and honor to God for that good creation?
Then, of course, just as the end of the term is arriving and I'm feeling pretty good about it, those tornadoes happened out in Oklahoma.
Damn, damn, damn.
With a town looking like a war zone, children trapped in destroyed schools, and a death toll that may approach the Joplin tornado, this big one was a silence-inducer, at least for folks with souls. (Of course there were those ready to proclaim the tornado as God's punishment for insert person's bete noire here because, well, hatred. I'm not going to give them the pleasure of publicizing their names because I don't believe in feeding trolls.) What could one say? Aside from repeated kyrie eleisons, what could one say?
How then does one speak of the glories of creation in the wake of nature at its most destructive? Theologians far better than I have struggled with this and not, as far as I can see, come up with a lot of useful stuff to say. There is a tension at work that we, in our finite experience and wisdom, cannot resolve. We want a binary world: unequivocally good or unequivocally evil, no gray space in between. Nature refuses to play along with this. The same climate that gives you that beautiful weather for your Memorial Day picnic also gives you Hurricane Sandy. The body that carries you and makes you and allows you to have any kind of interaction with the world turns out to be generating cancer just for the hell of it. That gorgeous lion you saw on your Kenyan safari went on to maul and devour that antelope you had just seen earlier. The circle of life has plenty of death about it.
On the other hand, terrible blizzards in January and February help ward off drought in July and August. Or the next tropical storm or hurricane turns out to be a desperately needed drought-breaker. The raging forest fire clears away clutter and undergrowth that chokes off new life, allowing new trees to grow. The cycle of death has plenty of life about it.
I don't know quite what redeeming quality tornadoes might have. They can be beautiful things, when they keep themselves to remote Kansas wheat fields where only storm chasers and shutterbugs are around to be threatened by them. That's no consolation this week, when a populous city was in the way instead. Satellite pictures of hurricanes, the kind of thing we've only been able to see for the last few decades, sometimes reveal amazingly beautiful energy, near-perfect symmetry, stuff that can be gorgeous to contemplate when it churns away harmlessly at sea but becomes The Enemy when it threatens an island or a coast.
On the other hand, most other kinds of natural disasters have some avoidable factor. If you don't want to get destroyed by a hurricane, don't build your house right on the beach. If you do, don't whine when it gets washed away. Fear earthquakes? Don't live on the San Andreas fault. If you're going to live right on the river, you run the risk of being flooded. Tornadoes, though? What do you say? Don't live in Oklahoma? I'm not quite sure that's workable. So how, in all honesty, do we praise God for the goodness of creation in the face of monsters like that?
Oddly, I am reminded of the doctrine of the Trinity, to be commemorated in this Sunday's liturgy. This was far from a settled thing for many decades or even centuries in the early church. Positions that smell of heresy today were widely accepted and taught as sound doctrine. Pitched battles of rhetoric were waged over the issue.
In the end, the church decided (as one might see reflected in the Nicene Creed) not to decide to some degree. The upshot is that there is one God. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. One God. Three in One. One in Three. How? You'll not find that answered in there. We can theologize about it all we want until the angels dancing on the pinhead get tired and go for a beer. We're not really going to solve it. But we will say, in our most basic theology, that it is.
So too with the goodness of creation even in the face of its destructiveness? That tornado striking Moore, Oklahoma was a horrible tragedy. We are called to live in harmony and right relationship with God's good created world. Resolve at all costs, or live in the tension? Three in One. One in Three. Resolve at all costs, one or the other, Three or One? Or live in the mystery?
"Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid." With all due respect to Frederick Buechner, that is a difficult thing to do or not do in a moment like this.