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Our sanctuaries need more than prayer

Ed Wolff • Mar 7, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Picture a highly knowledgeable congregation that worships in a beautiful old white framed building with a tall, majestic steeple in an area of rolling hills and lush green meadows outlined by towering deciduous and evergreen trees. When you enter the sanctuary from the warm, welcoming narthex, you stand in awe of the beauty surrounding you that shouts out the holiness and spiritual aura of the space. All around you are the vibrant stained glass windows that tell the story of your faith. Aged wood pews, lectern, altar, and baptismal font greet you as your eyes take in all the beauty.

Unfortunately, you know what’s going on behind the scenes. While you understand there has not been intentional neglect of this edifice that has provided a religious haven for generations of people, you are aware of the challenges that the congregation faces. A new roof is needed along with refurbished eaves and gutters. Water has seeped into many nooks and crannies that has eroded the strength of the wood. The stained glass windows are in jeopardy because the seals that protect them are disintegrating. The floors more than creak from age. There is concern that the supporting structures for the floors are no longer sustainable.

A current worshipper has informed you that architectural experts were called in to evaluate the damage and the cost involved in restoring this lovely church to the status to which it deserves. The news has not been good. Those knowledgeable with architecture have indicated that unless refurbishing begins within a short period of time, the building will be condemned and all that has been sustained will be lost. While the congregation has maintained a healthy membership, including a few wealthy people, the cost of the effort is huge. The congregation will have to make significant sacrifices they’ve never experienced before.

The worshippers realize that whatever decision is made, it will affect not only past generations, but generations to come.

Disagreements have arisen. The congregation is struggling to keep from taking sides. One group has mentioned that God has always provided and if we remain thoughtful in prayer, God will provide a way. Another group has proposed that a formal plan be instituted that will formally provide a step-by-step approach to systematically correct the structural issues along with a financial plan that parallels the reconstruction costs.

The fictitious sanctuary (but one many of us have experienced) I described is similar, but only a snippet, of the grandeur and beauty of the earth. To begin with, our planet is a minuscule part of a universe that has trillions of galaxies. (To put it in perspective, there are more galaxies than all the grains of sand on earth.) Yet this “grain of sand” is more majestic, awesome, spiritual, and beautiful than any man-made edifice.

Currently, scientists have concluded that we have approximately 12 years to address climate issues that are destroying the earth caused by the increase of carbon emissions, mostly human generated. This is no hypothetical case. There are all the signs that substantiate their concerns and prognosis. Glaciers are melting. Greenland’s ice shelves are melting at a faster pace than previously projected. This, along with Antarctic melting, are significantly raising the ocean levels. The oceans are warming and becoming acidic. Active coral reefs are dying. The Arctic melting is having a multitude of effects, including the melting of the permafrost which is emitting methane gas. The warming effect is creating Arctic vortexes that produce deep winter cold spells. Atmospheric warming influences more catastrophic weather events, including fires, hurricanes, tornados, blizzards, torrents of rain, droughts and flooding. Major cities flood during clear sunny days. Coastal areas include 40 percent of the population within 500 miles of our region. Migrations are occurring throughout the world. Refugee issues, including South America, are caused by climate change. Syria’s civil war was initiated by drought when the populace in rural areas moved to the cities in search of work for food.

There is a great difference between the hypothetical sanctuary described above and the earth. The earth is our human sanctuary created by the Divine. No human-made edifice can even compare to our creation, given to us as a gift for our physical and spiritual nourishment along with the responsibility of stewardship that replaces what we use. I could cite the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, the majestic beauty of the inland waterways of Alaska, the mystery of the earth’s rain forests. However, just look around us at the rivers of the Appalachians, along with the beauty of the mountains that contain them. See the bears of the Smoky Mountains, along with the deer, wild turkeys and song birds. That could all change.

Saving the Divine’s sanctuary will be expensive and require sacrifice. Prayer only is insufficient. Sacrifice that honors creation is necessary. After all, our commitment to the stewardship of planet earth affects our children, grandchildren and generations to come.

Ed Wolff is a retired minister and progressive activist.

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