“How can we sleep when our beds are burning?”
This was a lyric coined by the classic Australian band “Midnight Oil,” and I can relate. A bit. Truthfully, I have this talent for sweeping away worries from my mind through the medicinal of streaming video. It’s sleep-unhygienic, I know, but somehow 30 minutes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” settles my heart. So I usually sleep well, thank you.
But then I wake up and remember my dreams: nightmares revolving around mask-wearing, and of course, the occasionally recurring theme of running away from whatever’s burning – the house next door, some forest. Not my bed yet (Damn, now I just jinxed it).
The work day proceeds. I check my email, write a bit, get to the office, teach a bit, mobilize a bit. A good deal of a clergy’s day involves managing relationships. A volunteer with a heart of gold but also a gruff exterior interacts with a more sensitive volunteer, and I hear about it. I compassionately help the offended party frame the experience in a way that restores their calm and allows the smooth administration of various committees and such.
It happens a lot – at committee meetings, at the COVID-safe outdoor kiddush table, in the office, etc. Something about houses of worship opens up people’s hearts and perhaps makes them more vulnerable to perceiving some interactions as personal slights. I used to have little patience for such miscommunications, but over time I realized that shalom bayit – the Jewish value of household and organizational harmony – necessitated my taking it more seriously. The extra time is a small cost to pay, and none of it stays with me by the time I grab the remote – even if I’m the target.
What does stay with me – and what I am increasingly dreaming about – is the burning. Anxiety burns, fear burns, rage burns. Every so often, the bed is burning all night.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be sharing something so personal with you. I’m supposed to be the vanguard of the faith – and of generic faith itself. And the truth is, I have plenty of it. I have faith that someday I’ll have grandchildren; that we and they will learn important and lasting lessons from this pandemic, and that the considerably weak progress made last week in Glasgow climate summit is something that we and they can build upon year after year. Maybe we can reduce emissions by 50% by the end of the decade. The largest emitter of greenhouse gases – The USA with 4% of the population but causing 25% of all emissions – may put itself on track to do just that.
Yeah, I heard you say ‘dream on.’ I want to convince myself we can do this, but I also know that even with a 1.5o C increase in global average temperature (we’re up to 1.2o C now) will still have catastrophic impacts on humans and other of God’s creatures. So my superego leads with faith with the daylight, and my id leads with fear at night.
And I wonder, just how important are these congregational miscommunications? During a brief moment, I blurted this out during a comfort session with a volunteer: “The world is burning, and we worry about this stuff?” It was an effort to help the volunteer take this miscommunication less seriously. It was also an effort to kick myself in the head.
Indeed, why aren’t we infusing all – or at least a good portion – of our interactions with these interjections? We persons of faith are great at saying “Amen,” or “Barukh Hashem.” Why aren’t we ending blessings with “The world is burning?”
Why aren’t we talking about this planetary peril at each and every one of our worship services? Why aren’t we addressing it at each and every one of our committee and board meetings? There are times when I just want to blurt out in the middle of a Ritual Committee meetings something like: “if this committee completely disbanded and reconstructed itself as a climate change action committee, I’d be fine with that.” It would certainly be a headache, but how many headaches are the result of massive wildfires spewing the toxic ash from computers and beds? How much of a headache would it be if the San Fernando Valley – a flood plain – sustained a massive flood up to the baseboards and windows of our congregations? We’ve already seen massive devastation from floods and fires to homes and facilities, and we are certain to see more and more of it over the next 80 years.
I’m not dreaming of burning things because I’m afraid things might burn. Rather, I dream of burning things because things are burning!
I hate anxiety. I hate fear. But I have faith that God created these emotions for a reason. All emotions create their own energy frequencies. Anxiety adds to its frequency immense amplitude. So rather than sweep away my anxieties with fictional photon torpedoes, only to see them return when I turn things off, I plan to burn some midnight oil. I’m going to try to figure out how to make my congregation one that is intensely aware of, and working assiduously to combat the looming devastation in store for our planet. Every worship service, every committee meeting, every pastoral interaction, must have climate action on its agenda. Every volunteer, every sojourner, every board and staff member, needs to have climate action baked into their mission or job description.
The Sages of the Great Assembly said, among other things, “raise many disciples.” We’re going to need every disciple we get in order to avoid being among those of whom the Psalmist said, “the dead do not praise God.”
So if we should run into each other and you’re wondering how I’m doing, it’s always the same: Barukh Hashem. The world is burning.