by Lowell Bliss
I woke up this morning with a scratchy throat and a dull headache. No running nose. . . yet. No fever. . . yet. No coronavirus reported in our small corner of the huge Ontario province. . . yet. But of course, my symptoms were enough for me to turn to Robynn and say, “Can you lead the book study tonight?; I shouldn’t go.” By the end of the morning, we had received a phone call from one of our most faithful book study members: “Maybe we should cancel altogether?” she said. Linda takes her cues from her a daughter, a health care official in Niagara Falls, who told her on the phone last night, “Mom, you have to start taking this seriously.” Robynn turned around and notified the church office.
It was absolutely the right decision to cancel our Tuesday evening book study, but it brought to mind the appeal I had put on Facebook just last week. The year 2020 is a crucial year for climate action, and I had encouraged all my friends to proliferate book studies using the text our parish is using, namely my friend Ruth Valerio’s Saying Yes to Life: The Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book 2020. Sure, we could have organized a book study around the book that our bishop recommended to the diocese--Rachel Held Evans’s Inspired--but we can read Evans’s book in May or in 2021. Ruth’s book seems to have some time-constraints attached, not the least of which are its Lenten references. More importantly, this is the type of book that we should have been reading as a church back in 1989 when James Hansen first told us that global warming had started. In other words, we can’t afford any further delays in reshaping our thinking on climate change, let alone. . . a cancellation.
And then there was the headline in my newsfeed a couple days ago: “U.N. cancels some meetings ahead of climate summit due to coronavirus.” Face-to-face meetings were supposed to take place in Bonn, Germany this week in preparation for the crucial COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland this summer. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres commented: “Our task is made more difficult by the postponement of many meetings due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. But even as we work to contain and address the virus, we must also look to use every opportunity to build our climate action agenda.” This recalled for me a blog post I had published after the COP25 summit in Madrid. COP26 is the summit where the Paris Agreement is actually set to go into effect. It is the summit where the nations are challenged to arrive in Glasgow with targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions that the scientists themselves could sign off on: namely that these revised targets will allow the world to achieve “carbon neutrality by 2050” and thus stave off the worst suffering that the poor and vulnerable will be facing. Unfortunately, COP25 didn’t get done all the preparatory work that it said it would, in part because they were catching up on work that COP24 in Poland had failed to finish in 2018. We entered COP26’s big year working our way out of a hole. These intersessional meetings are important, so is face-to-face interaction, and now the first important meeting has been cancelled. Here’s how Reuters alerts us to the importance of June’s meetings:
Jennifer Tollmann, a policy adviser with international climate change think tank E3G, said the upcoming meeting that had been due to take place in Bonn in March was a highly technical preparatory session, which should be easier to conduct via videoconference than a much more significant meeting that is still due to take place in Bonn from June 1-11. “If they cancel the June meetings, though, that would be a bigger issue for COP26 and the UK,” Tollmann said, referring to the acronym for the climate summit and its host. The June conference in Bonn is seen as an important opportunity for climate envoys from around the world to find ways to address outstanding issues ahead of the Glasgow summit. The June meeting also represents an opportunity for pre-summit diplomacy for the British hosts, led by Business Minister Alok Sharma, who Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed to lead the Glasgow proceedings last month.
Of course, announcements of cancellations are springing up everywhere. Italy is “cancelled,” for crying out loud, as is, I hope, your plans for that ocean cruise. Harvard University has cancelled classes for after Spring Break. The South by Southwest music festival is cancelled. Athletes are worried about the Summer Olympics in Japan (a decision will be made in May, officials say.) We are all being encouraged to limit our face-to-face interactions, especially with large crowds of people who have crossed borders and regions. The disease control and healthcare officials who are advising this, I find them as believable as Linda’s daughter, and the cancellations as advisable as tonight’s book study. And yet. . .
What about the crucial opportunities that we are losing at this crucial moment where a Skype conference seems like a poor substitute for face-to-face interactions? Last week, Ed Brown told me that the Lausanne WEA Creation Care Network has just cancelled its Middle East Conference. Plans for the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day which intend to emphasize the severity of our climate emergency are also being re-evaluated.
What does a Christian do when the crucial work of a physical presence gets cancelled?
We’ve known the answer to that question since Sunday School days: we pray. “Work as if it all depends on you; pray as if it all depends on God” may have even been a poster on the wall in your Youth Wing. The coronavirus doesn’t change that equation; it clarifies it. The CDC may be turning our homes into self-quarantine units, but we can turn them into prayer closets, which is a term with an allusion to Matthew 6:10: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Certainly, the CDC would affirm Jesus’s earlier instructions—but for different reasons: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.”)
Mountain Rain, the biography of the famous missionary in Burma, J.O. Fraser, tells the story of Fraser’s particular burden for a Lisu village that was among the most isolated on his preaching circuit. It was physically impossible for Fraser the preacher to get to this village as much as he wanted. And yet, he was perpetually surprised to see how vibrant the church in that village was compared to the church in the city where he lived and ministered daily. One day, however, he came to realization, namely that because he couldn’t visit this village as often as he wanted, he found himself praying for those villagers more than he did for his local congregation. Locally, he was relying on his preaching and his energy and his physical presence. In that other village, he was relying more heavily on prayer.
I don’t think that God uses a stopwatch on our prayers, but I do think that part of the mystery of intercessory prayer is bound up in James 4:2: “You do not have because you do not ask God.” I’m not sure I would be praying for the success of the June Pre-COP26 Intersessional meetings in Bonn if there wasn’t the thought they would be cancelled altogether. I wouldn’t be praying for my parish’s reading of Say Yes to Life!—something that they are doing without me anyway—if I had remained so busy preparing tonight’s lesson plan. Be J.O. the pray-er, if you can’t be J.O. the preacher.
First and foremost in our prayer closets let’s pray for the swift end of the coronavirus pandemic, and for protection on those most vulnerable in our community because of age of pre-existing health conditions. Let’s pray for those who can’t afford to skip work, who don’t have health insurance, or who can’t pay for childcare. Let’s pray for wise and truthful government responses. Let’s not pray for just our families, but also for other countries (e.g. Italy!) including other countries we might consider enemies (e.g. China and Iran.) If you like liturgical prayers and lectio divina, my wife recommended to me this excellent meditation posted today by 24-7prayer: (10 March 2020). When I complained about the extra step of having to download the Lectio 365 app, she just said, “So what? It’s free,” and seemed to wonder why a self-quarantined person like myself should have to worry about a little extra work to do. It’s a wonderful prayer to bookmark. I can imagine returning to it often, and am thrilled to know that written prayers are one way that we can still “gather together” during pandemics.
Having prayed these prayers, let’s also turn to interceding for the crucial work that is being cancelled, for the missed opportunities which are passing by, for the work whose effectiveness seems to be diminished without face-to-face interactions. For example, you can join me now as I pray:
“Creator God, grant our climate negotiators extra grace as they try to conduct March’s business over the internet. Please don’t let June’s meetings be cancelled, and please continue to set COP26 up for success. Use the global outbreak of COVID19 to build into us a humility before natural forces and a vision for global cooperation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”