The first of two excerpts from Jim Antal's recently released book Climate Church, Climate World.
What follows is an imagined a letter from a pastor to her congregation written on Ash Wednesday 2070. The church had been serving a city on the eastern seaboard of the United States since the church’s founding in the seventeenth century. The pastor mentions the frequent catastrophic weather events, the endless border wars, the hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing flooded cities, the permanent deployment of military to protect the interests of the rich, and billions of people dying from uncontrollable disease, drought, and starvation. These conditions will have caused the world population to drop from its peak in 2040 of about 9 billion people to a huddle of survivors in 2070 numbering about 2 billion. This letter paints a picture of how a particular church might close its doors.
Ash Wednesday, February 12, 2070
Beloved in Christ:
Grace and peace to you. It was good to see so many of you at our final service. Thanks for making the effort. After all our tearful hugs, I realized that it was important for me to reach out and offer a final farewell to those of you who were unable to join us.
Today, as I marked each of you with a cross of ashes, I said, “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.” I am so grateful that Ellen suggested Ash Wednesday as the closing date for our church. The liturgy, as we adapted it, seemed so fitting.
After everyone had received ashes, I was caught off guard when Mark respectfully asked me to let him hold the urn of ashes. (For those of you who may not know Mark, he grew up in our congregation, and then spent the past twelve years in the Army. Like millions of other soldiers and members of the National Guard, in 2059 he was reassigned to try to contain the Great Conflagration in Canada, Montana, and the Dakotas. He returned home about three months ago.) As I handed him the urn, it dawned on me that he had spent his whole adult life amidst ashes and fire. If anyone understood Ash Wednesday, it was Mark. He prayed silently for a moment, as if he were summoning all he had learned from his years amidst the fires, and then he reached into the bowl of ashes and used them to “mark” the altar, the pulpit, and the chancel. With each mark, he repeated, “From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.” Stirred by his profound witness, we all joined him in unison the third time. Truly, this felt like the closing of our church.
Since the Great Flood in 2037, our church and neighborhood have been under water six times. At first, we did all we could for the neighborhood. But the Third Flood in 2051 was such a catastrophe—and our membership had dwindled to so few—that for the past twenty years we’ve focused on keeping our once-beautiful building open in order to carry out funerals and other liturgical responsibilities. Last year’s Category Six hurricane made it clear to the dozen or so members who were still trying to live in the neighborhood that it was time to close the church.
My greatest regret is that over the past few decades—in our time of greatest need—faith in God has become as extinct as the elephant, tiger, panda, and the other thousands of species whose extinction we have mourned each St. Francis Day. Many have suggested that humanity’s abandonment of God is due to despair over the widespread increase in war, the persistent killings along the national border barriers, the unforgiving mosquito-borne viruses that have now invaded even Canada, and so on. My own view is that, as God’s creation came to be experienced as the destroyer—not the sustainer—of civilized life, people could no longer believe in a loving God.
Thanks be to God that our congregation has resisted this view! Many of you credit one of my predecessors, the Rev. Dr. Jill Smith, for her clear and courageous leadership over her twenty-three years of ministry (2017–2040). More than any voice in America, she urged all who would listen to embrace a new set of values. As our congregation adopted these values, we were both cheered and jeered. I have marveled at the stories of how, in 2022, over half the congregation made an “Acts 2:44 commitment” to hold all things in common. Not long after that the congregation undertook a year-long study of the concept and practice of ownership of land. Recognizing that “The earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24) the church voted to turn the church property into a land trust—and dozens of members did likewise with their own (previously) “private” property. We still use many of the life-changing liturgies Jill wrote that helped this congregation expand the Golden Rule to include unborn generations of people and creatures as our neighbors.
Thankfully, these changes kept us connected with the compassion that God is always pouring into our hearts (Romans 5:5). As all of you know, a few months after my son was conscripted into the Army, he was killed while protecting our border from climate refugees. Although I had only been your minister for a few months, your caring, compassionate support saved my life, and over the years we have become family for one another.
Not a day goes by that I don’t cast my mind back to 2015—the year Pope Francis issued his Encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home” and when 193 nations signed the COP21 Paris Climate Agreement. Although I was only twelve years old at the time, I’ll never forget the hope I felt that the grownups were going to own up to having trashed God’s creation and were now undertaking the necessary changes to make things right. But at that young age, I didn’t realize that the politicians would only make these changes if forced to do so. Throughout history, one of the voices that compelled the end of slavery, the guarantee of civil rights, and LGBTQIA+ rights and the end of apartheid was the voice of the church. But darker forces than I could imagine at the age of twelve had already made certain that the church would mostly stay silent on climate change because climate change was a “political issue.”
What if the leaders of every faith community the world over had done what Jill did? Looking back, I just don’t understand why religious leaders failed to recognize that the conflict over climate change was a moral conflict—a conflict of values. Was it a lack of personal courage? Did they really think that religion had more to do with personal salvation and little if anything to do with collective salvation? Was the uncritical acceptance of personal gain so universal that it was unthinkable for a pastor to insist that everything we have comes from God? Did the blasphemous idea that God gave us the Earth to plunder for our own benefit become so embedded in our economy that our obligation to future generations was forgotten or dismissed?
Jill was a great moral leader because she never lost her moral compass. She knew that God had not called her to embrace an ideology of the status quo. She was not afraid to ask us to become living examples of the values needed to sustain life as it had evolved on this planet. And you responded! Over the past twenty years, every one of you has shared with me your testimony—the more you lived your lives for one another and in service to the dying world, the more satisfied you became with your own life.
But now all of that is past. I’m reminded of the Prophet Jeremiah’s comment: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (Jeremiah 8:20).
In the coming months, I expect most of you will join the others who have relocated to higher ground. Now that the world population is less than a quarter of what it was thirty years ago, you will likely find a place. Among our many lamentations is the abandonment of the once-elevating conviction that the role of the church is to animate the conscience of the nation. In its place, I hope that each of you will continue to respond to God’s call to be ambassadors of the beloved community. I hope that each of you will make whatever community you join become more resilient. And, as has been the focus of our life together here, I urge you to bring to your new community a new understanding of hope, rooted in the Prophets and the Book of Acts.
The theologian from whom I have learned the most—Walter Brueggemann—introduced me to Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah. Like us, these prophets lived in a period when their “known world” (Jerusalem) was assaulted and finally disbanded.7 They told their people, and they tell us today, that we have two tasks: to let go of the world we once knew, and to receive from God a new world. As Isaiah says, “Do not remember former things; Behold, I am doing a new thing” (Isaiah 43:18–19).
Only by fully grieving all that we have lost can we enter into the new tomorrow that God is preparing. We have so much to mourn: personal grief over loved ones lost and homes destroyed; ubiquitous grief over the long emergency that has straight-jacketed our lives; and anticipatory grief over the catastrophe that we are handing over to our children. I hope that our life together over the past twenty years has allowed you to grieve in the deepest possible way. What I am certain of is that your tears, your outpourings, and your honesty have allowed me to pour out my grief without reservation. Your love and compassion have given me hope that scripture’s promises of forgiveness are true.
Because of this, and thanks to you, I go forth in hope, trusting that you do so as well.
The next issue of The Pollinator will feature a sequel to this letter in the form of an imagined speech from the year 2100. In this envisioned future, the world and the Church have reversed their trajectory to head in a much more hopeful direction.
The Reverend Dr. Jim Antal serves the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ as the Conference Minister and President.