Tag Archive | Epiphany

Epiphany: Ice Out on the Himalayas

Epiphany: Ice Out on the Himalayas
David R. Weiss – February 6, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #10 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

As I noted last week, Epiphany, the feast that marks the arrival of the Magi, is about “Aha!” moments of insight. For the Magi, their epiphany was evident both in the faith that led them to follow the star and in finding the Christ child; their tale symbolic of the universal reach of God. The season of Epiphany lifts up other “Aha!” moments for Jesus leading up to his transfiguration, a classic mountaintop epiphany. This week’s news offered another mountaintop epiphany, which is my focus today.

Sometimes referred to as Earth’s “third pole” because more ice is found here than anywhere else on the planet except for the Arctic and Antarctic, the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) mountain region spans eight countries. Moving roughly west to east these glacier-capped peaks are found in Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. The fresh water in these mountains—rainfall, but especially the water stored in ice and snowpack—feeds ten major rivers, including the Indus and the Ganges. And this region is headed for “ice out.”[1]

According to a report just released (February 4, 2019) by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), even under a best case scenario (one researcher refers to it as the “miracle” scenario) in which we actually stop global warming at the “ideal” 1.50C, more than a third of the region’s ice and snow will be gone by 2100. Fully half of it will be lost if we only manage the more realistic (but still increasingly difficult) target of 20C in warming. And if we go on pumping carbon into the system at present rates, over two-thirds of the HKH region’s ice will be gone in less than a century.

Writing from Minnesota’s mid-winter deep freeze, with streets and sidewalks coated with ice—ice now covered with several inches of fresh snow (and more on the way), maybe ice-out isn’t such a bad idea. But it is. The glaciers in these mountains store water and release it seasonally. Besides being essential to the immediate ecosystem—home to 240 million people and a range of wildlife—the water that flows down from these mountains is critical for the agriculture, energy, sanitation, and water needs of close to two billion people.

The ICIMOD report hardly represents an extreme view. It was five years in the making, with more than 200 scientists representing 22 countries contributing research, and another 125 peer reviewers cross-checking it. It offers very much a “middle-of-the-road” consensus epiphany. And it is alarming—and unforgiving: climate change is driving temperature rise faster at higher elevation—and the impacts in the report are already “loaded” into the system.

If this is a facet of the climate crisis you haven’t heard of yet, that’s partly economic. 80 million of the region’s inhabitants live on less than $750 per year. Nearly all of the impacted areas would be considered parts of “developing” regions, thus rarely worth screen time or print space in our news cycle. Especially because right now it’s merely a dawning disaster. But wait until the dawn hits.

As the glaciers melt—which is a matter of when, not if—the melt will first dramatically increase river flows and threaten mountain lakes to overflow their banks in never-before-seen floods. But eventually—and that’s not a geological “eventually” spread over eons, that’s a generational “eventually” that will play out within single lifetimes—the decreased water levels will leave lakes and springs and streams starved for water. And along the way the only thing truly predictable about the lurch between flooding and barren rivers will be the ensuing chaos. Drinking water, hydro-electric power, agricultural production, human sanitation, and all the natural flora and fauna in the region will be upended. Of course, the people living in this area are among those least driving climate change, yet also among those most vulnerable to its effects. It’s an unfortunate and unjust double-membership that will be common in the coming decades.

Ultimately, when ice-out hits—whether one-third, one-half, or more—the ripple effects will reach well beyond the HKH region producing inevitable waves of migration and rounds of conflict. By then the waning of the world’s “third pole” will be rippling toward all of us.

How does this hard icy-cold, then rushing-wet, then parched-dry epiphany shape us? I suggest its primary meaning for us as individuals—as persons with limited political-corporate power—and as communities of faith is as a summons to grief. The most significant aspect of the consequences related by this study is their inevitability. We don’t know just how bad it will get, but the adjectives will range from terrible to devastating, from catastrophic to unimaginable. There is no near-miss happy ending available.

I do believe “hope” has a role to play in our response to climate change, but it is hope in a stark form that we are rarely comfortable with. Hope in the form that Václav Havel describes as “the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.” It is hope in the form that remembers that the Jesus who says to us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) is the same Jesus who ends up crucified and is pointedly clear that following him involves a cross of our own. That form of hope.

Whatever we do to lessen the impact of climate change at this point—and there is much, both personally and politically that must be done—it should be done “hope-free,” so to speak.[2] Not because we imagine ourselves heroes at the last minute (after decades of denial), but because we are determined to move toward tomorrow, whatever it brings, with more integrity than we had yesterday.

And this is the least popular and most important word of wisdom I carry: we need to tap into grief to find that form of hope. The Transition Movement is paradoxical in extreme—like Luther’s theology of the cross, which asserts that the clearest vision is that which peers through suffering not around it. In a world determined to look ever on the bright side of things (even when it’s the false side) or, at worst, to distract itself from that which we’d rather not see—in that world, the capacity to see suffering, to grieve loss (and not simply our own, but that of others—and of Earth itself), to give voice to lament—these capacities will be existentially essential. We will not survive without grief.

It need not have the last word, but like a sustained note, it will need to color all the other notes we sing for a long, long time. And so long as we avoid the soul-deep lament that the world asks of us, we are not yet singing the song that must be sung. And that’s today’s epiphany.

I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Click here to learn more about how you can support me.

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!

[1] All the background data in this essay comes from these three news reports:
This YouTube video offers a very brief overview as well: https://youtu.be/8bPFAEdRp8o

[2] The phrase is Dahr Jamail’s (who also references the Václav Havel quote) in an excerpt from his book, The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Destruction. https://truthout.org/articles/in-facing-mass-extinction-we-dont-need-hope-we-need-to-grieve

Epiphany: Bitter Cold while the House is on Fire

Epiphany: Bitter Cold while the House is on Fire
David R. Weiss – January 29, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #9 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

First, a minor mea culpa: I’m distracted these days by intense bargaining as steward for the Hamline University Adjunct Faculty Union. My intent is to begin shaping these weekly posts into a larger inter-connected arc, but the pace and passion of our bargaining is making that difficult these days. If you’re curious about what I mean, check out my first and second blog posts on that. Otherwise, let’s talk Epiphany and climate change.

The Feast of Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Magi to see the baby Jesus. It marks the end (the Twelfth Day) of Christmas and ushers in the beginning of the season of Epiphany, which runs until the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Because the visit of the Magi is usually seen as representing the revelation (i.e., the “epiphany,” the “showing”) of the Christ child to the nations, during the rest of the season in the church year we consider other ways Jesus is revealed from baptism to transfiguration.

But right now I’m thinking and writing about climate change and how it’s being “revealed” in this season as well. Right after Christmas I wrote about “shouting ‘Fire’ in church.”[1] Then just last week 16 year-old climate activist, Greta Thunberg, in a powerful speech delivered to some of the world’s wealthiest at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, declared, “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”[2] I couldn’t agree more.

And yet, as the memes on my Facebook page and the headlines in multiple news stories announce, it will be colder in many places here in the Midwest these next few days than in Antarctica. Not surprisingly, President Trump weighed in on this via Twitter: “In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming [sic]? Please come back fast, we need you!”

Well, what gives? On one level this is simply a matter of confusing weather (immediate, short-term atmospheric conditions) with climate (weather considered as a pattern over a long period of time). A short spell of intense cold weather does not cancel global warming any more than one cloudburst undoes a months long drought. Weather will always show much more variability than climate. And certainly, our perceptions register weather far more easily than climate, but to confuse the two as our president likes to do, becomes increasingly inexcusable as the stakes of climate change escalate. The man tweets the way Nero fiddled while Rome burned. (Irony: while the tale of Nero fiddling as his capital city went up in flames is almost certainly fictional, the image aptly describes exactly what our president is—in fact—doing.)

But there’s more than mere misunderstanding at work here. This bitter cold spell is quite likely related to global warming.[3] It provides all the more evidence that, as Greta puts it, “our house is on fire.” The polar vortex is the more or less disc-shaped swirl of cold air that typically sits atop the arctic. The polar vortex always demonstrates variability in both its strength and position; the stronger it is, the more it remains centered above the pole. When it weakens, it allows the cold air gathered at the top of the planet to roll southward in a much colder than usual blast of winter air. And the accelerating loss of arctic sea ice—and the general warming of arctic land and water—weakens the polar vortex. The result is that cold arctic air is held much less “secure” at the pole … and is much more likely to be drawn down into the Midwest—exactly as we’re experiencing this week.

So, while we shiver under dangerously cold temperatures this week (although just for several days) the planet overall continues to warm—dangerously and unabated. Indeed much of the rest of the world is rather wilting as we alternately boast-bemoan our January temperature plunge. Some parts of the arctic have warmed so much overall that there are places on Baffin Island in northern Canada where the ground is now exposed—free of ice—for the first time in at least 40,000 years (over 100,000 years by some estimates).[4] And since the arctic is warming at a rate two to three times the rest of the planet, it’s quite possible that as we lurch toward a much hotter future, we’ll also be visited more frequently by the frigid air of a polar vortex knocked off balance on a warming planet.

As a recent piece in the Atlantic reported, “2018 was hotter than any year in the 19th century. It was hotter than any year in the 20th century. It was hotter than any year in the first decade of this century. In fact, with only three exceptions, it was the hottest year on Earth since 1850. Those three exceptions: 2018 was slightly cooler than 2015, 2016, and 2017. The past four years, in other words, have been the four hottest years ever reliably measured.”[5] Let that sink in. Of the past 168 years, the four hottest have just happened. Right in a row. And—because our current polar vortex spill across the Midwest is little more than a blip on a big planet across an entire year—odds are good (read: bad) that 2019 will make it five in a row. How’s that for an epiphany?

We like to see an epiphany as the revelation of something good, as a cause for hope. But sometimes epiphany signals a truth that must be grasped—even when it shatters the world you prefer. Greta Thunberg, prophet of a climate epiphany and kindred spirit to my restless soul, concluded her comments at the World Economic Forum like this: “Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

For those committed to denial—whether because of economic interests, the lure of first world comforts (read: developing world theft), or the sheer enormity of cataclysm aimed our way—fear and panic are going to hit at some point. But the Transition Movement is about reckoning with the reality of climate change without waiting for politicians or the wealthy to reach the point of fear and panic. It’s about choosing a different path, as individuals and (more importantly) as local communities right now. Not because that different path will “save” us. No. Rather, because that different path may allow us to build a bridge forward into a future altogether different than any of us dreamed of.

I’m convinced there is joy to be had both in making this transition and in the life that awaits us beyond it. But it’s epiphany right now. And both the bitter cold and the burning house are trying to show us something. I suggest we stop and see.


I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Click here to learn more about how you can support me.

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!







After Epiphany: Home by Another Route

After Epiphany: Home by Another Route
David R. Weiss – January 9, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #6 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

We celebrated Epiphany this past Sunday. You know, the journey of the magi, the star in the sky, the three gifts. And, of course, the palace encounter with King Herod who feigns reverence for this rumored child-king in hopes of tricking the magi to come back and reveal the infant’s whereabouts. The tale is perhaps apocryphal: the resulting slaughter of the holy innocents is attested nowhere outside Matthew’s Gospel. Indeed, it may be an evangelical fiction crafted by Matthew to evoke the memory of Moses’ birth story in his Jewish readers. Either way, the account meshes with Herod’s well-known paranoia. He routinely killed anyone he saw as a political rival—he ordered the political execution of hundreds of persons, including a brother-in-law, a mother-in-law, his second wife, and three of his own children. Whether his well-attested ruthless paranoia was, in fact, turned on Jesus, the tale is of a piece with Herod’s character.[1]

For a moment, then, Jesus’ young life hangs in the balance. Thankfully the magi, having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, journeyed home by another route. There are a thousand points on which history turns. In Matthew’s Gospel the magi’s decision to go home by another route is one of those points. For us, too. Which is why I’m spending the year thinking, writing, talking about climate change and Christian faith. Following any of the familiar routes forward will end catastrophically … if not for us, then for generations to come and for countless companion creatures on the planet. History will turn on the route we choose. I think the Transition Movement[2] offers a promising way to go “home by another route”—and one in deep alignment with core Christian values.

The Transition Movement begins by acknowledging three daunting problems we face. (1) Our lives—our desires-expectations-cultural worldview—presume an unsustainable rate of consumption of a finite resource, fossil fuel. Whether because we’ll eventually exhaust the resource itself, or exhaust the easily accessible sources, leading to steep increases in cost, our fossil fuel-fed lives are about to become fossils themselves. (2) Even if oil weren’t finite, the atmosphere’s capacity to preserve a livable planet for us is. Climate change is the result of industrial, transportation-heavy, convenience-and-consumption-driven lives that ignore the impact of our choices on the planet. (3) Our lives are also entangled in a global financial system that banks on unending growth (excluding the environmental costs of doing business on a finite planet from its market calculus). It trades on an increasingly “magical” notion of money—even as it heightens the gap between rich and poor. All three of these out-of-balance relationships are evidence of human indifference to finitude—and they are about to have a catastrophic collision with reality.

These crises are interwoven and together they “make sense” as manifestations of human sin: our readiness to break relationship with God, others, world, and self in pursuit of a false notion of reality in which we are “godlike”: disconnected from each other and the world, able to pursue “abundance” for ourselves (or our in-groups) without need of others.[3] Moreover each crisis now runs on a decidedly structural inertia that requires little more than passive human complicity to keep churning away. In this sense each crisis is now upheld by what Paul referred to as “powers and principalities” (Eph. 6:12)—not supernatural demonic forces, but rather the mundane, social-systemic, supra-human forces that get embedded in social arrangements, cultures, industrialized systems and so forth.[4]

The Transition Movement’s response is also in line with Christian convictions—albeit ones that have often atrophied for lack of exercise in our Christian lives, both personally and communally. Recognizing that the three-fold crisis noted above demands our transition to a life that uses far less energy, depends far less on an extractive economy, and is resilient enough to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions on a climate-changed planet, Transition invites us, as it were, to be of good cheer. It asserts:

(1) Since these transitions are really non-negotiable on a finite planet, let’s embrace them thoughtfully rather than ignore them until they’re thrust upon us by crashing systems. Transition holds that a different world is possible—and that there are tangible, practical steps that can begin the journey there.

(2) Let’s fashion more resilient communities—specifically working to establish systems/services that can withstand the inevitable shock of planetary systems that will be rocked by rapid change in the decades ahead. Such changes will include weather patterns, growing seasons, land use, and population movements. Globalized/centralized systems will be less able to respond than localized systems that are cooperatively networked together. Thus, resilience includes re-localizing our economy whenever possible, building deeper relationships with those who produce the goods we need, and sharing skills that can empower us to live simpler and more sustainable lives. (Re-localizing also involves re-localizing our sources of fun/entertainment.)

(3) Most fundamentally, Transition says, pursuing these goals will lead to lives that are richer in both meaning and joy. Lives that reflect what Jesus promises as “life abundant.” (John 10:10) Some of this happens “naturally”: the by-product of community-building activities. Some of it involves an “Inner Transition”: intentionally re-fashioning a worldview in which we are AT HOME on a finite planet, joyfully knit into community across diversity, and happy to pursue meaning and purpose through art, knowledge, and relationship rather than material consumption. Given that our inner worldview is the terrain in question, this re-fashioning is minimally psychological-philosophical in nature, though I think it is most effectively accomplished on a spiritual level. Not that it must be Christian or even explicitly religious, but such a transformation in worldview—as needed for sustained and abundant life on a finite planet—requires roots in awe and wonder. And those roots grow deep in psychic soil that is fluent in a sense of the sacred.

“Tomorrow” is the country to which we (and our children’s children) are heading home. We have long needed (for numerous generations!) a path forward far different than the one we’ve been on. Transition can take us home by another route. It’s time we begin that journey.


I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Click here to learn more about how you can support me.

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!


[1]Matthew 2:1-18.For one view of how this tale fits into Herod’s larger story (and a view sympathetic to its plausible historicity) see here: www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2009/12/08/The-Slaughter-of-the-Innocents-Historical-Fact-or-Legendary-Fiction.aspx.

[2]My discussion of Transition here is drawn primarily from the Transition U.S. website. See the links to peak oil, climate change, and the economic crisis here: www.transitionus.org/why-transitionand the description of its Guiding Principles here: www.transitionus.org/initiatives/7-principles. Also, Timothy Gorridge & Rosie Beckham, The Transition Movement for Churches: A Prophetic Imperative for Today, London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2013, pp. 1-13; and Ruah Swennerfelt, Rising to the Challenge: The Transition Movement and People of Faith, Quaker Institute for the Future, 2016, pp. 45-49.

[3]I mean “godlike” in an entirely wrong-headed and wrong-hearted way, imaging “god” on our terms, rather than God’s. Similarly, any pursuit of “abundance” in isolation from the web of being—from genuine relationships with fellow humans-creatures-ecosystems—is “abundance” only in an illusory and ultimately self-contradicting manner.

[4]Paul declares that in our struggle to be faithful, we contend not merely with flesh and blood—the frailties and temptations of our own humanity and the obstructions of others—but against “principalities and powers.” Though his words were originally read to reflect a worldview that saw human activity beset by demonic influences, a number of twentieth century scholars (Jaques Ellul, William Stringfellow, John Howard Yoder, and Walter Wink) argued Paul was making a much more sophisticated and insightful observation: calling out our capacity to set up empires, societies, cultures, that establish whole systems with an inertia that is greater than any individual person—an inertia that seemingly takes on a life of its own. Not a consciousness, per se, but an institutionalized energy that can will forward a set of assumptions that carry destructive consequences.