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Plant Grapes

Last week I made sauerkraut with my students in cooking class. As part of the lesson, we talked about the role of fermentation historically in preserving food, especially in areas with harsh winters. Today, our global food system allows us access to pretty much any food we want, whenever we want it - for better and for worse. 

Here at St. John, the focus of our midweek Lenten services has been lament. A lot of the lament in our discussions has been personal laments. We have talked about grieving loss and how we find comfort - with others, in music, in nature. This coming week, we will reflect on communal lament - those laments that touch a whole community, maybe a nation, maybe the world. 

A phrase, with no discernible source, came to me as I began sketching out plans for an Earth Month at St. John (an expansion of Earth Day), thought about the CROP Walk and hunger, and ruminated on lament - “the Earth’s lament.” My Google search of the phrase failed to turn up anything I was familiar with (see note below), but it did return plenty of results in keeping with the thought that brought the phrase to me. We have unknowingly, and knowingly brought harm to the Earth that sustains us. 

Talking with my students about growing seasons, I said something about what winters are normally like here, in comparison to this year. As I was driving home after going through this lesson for the 8th time in a week a thought occurred to me, what is a normal winter in Metro Detroit, especially for these kids? My youngest students are in 3rd grade. I’m not sure their idea of a Michigan winter aligns with mine. I’m not sure my idea of a Michigan winter aligns with the reality of a Michigan winter anymore.

Off to Google again. A 2016 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) details some of the changes to Detroit’s climate. Average annual temperatures have risen, especially the low temperatures between 1951 and 2014. In that same time, our freeze-free period has lengthened by 2 weeks. They predict this to continue, adding 1-2 months to the time between our last freeze of spring and first freeze of fall. Our climate is changing - for better and for worse.

It’s not just a milder winter here that climate change brings. Climate change is worsening storms, droughts, floods, heatwaves, wildfires. And ours isn’t the only climate that is changing. In other parts of the world, these same changes, and more, are happening to even greater extremes with devastating consequences. People are losing their homes, their livelihoods, even their lives. Issues of hunger, war, displacement, poverty are all inextricably linked to and exacerbated by climate change

I don’t have to eat sauerkraut all winter, but the system that allows for tomatoes in Michigan in the middle of winter also contributes in a variety of ways to hunger in communities the world over. Our systems of industrial food production and our means of transportation certainly lead to more choices in the grocery store, but they also further our climate crisis. The problems are complex. I have little personal agency to impact change on the scale needed. It can feel pretty hopeless. What could I even do? Why even try?

I always find myself listening to The Mountain Goats, but lately I’ve been listening to them even more. I’ll be seeing them in April with a friend of mine. She’s never really heard them before, and with 16+ hours of driving together, I’ve been trying to decide which of their 29+ albums to play for her. Besides that, the vibe of their music is fitting for this season of lament. 

Their 2009 album takes its title from the Nicene Creed, The Life of the World to Come. We don’t tend to use the Nicene Creed as often at St. John, but I remember saying the Nicene Creed a lot in the church I grew up in. Between the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene, I much prefer the Nicene (I do like the New Creed as well). Its language feels more powerful, mystical - “seen and unseen,” “God from God, Light from Light,” “begotten, not made,” “of one being.” I don’t entirely remember what I thought of the closing line, “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come,” as a kid. Looking at it today I think about rejuvenation, change, and hope for a better future. 

The opening song from this album, “1 Samuel 15:23,” has the short refrain, “Go down to the netherworld, plant grapes.” 

In these Wednesday services, as we have discussed our personal laments, we have talked about the role of friends and family, of community, to help us get through and face darker moments, the “netherworlds.”

There are problems, large and small, in the world all around us - communal laments. The complex issue of climate change is just one of many laments. As individuals, yes, we are called to go and do what we can to ease suffering, to “plant grapes.” But together we become a community, our singular grape vines become a vineyard. Together we work for the resurrection of the dead, to support the life of the world to come. 

Note: While trying to find a source for the phrase "the Earth's lament," I discovered a work commissioned by the National Lutheran Choir called "Lament of the Earth." I found a performance on YouTube and do recommend a listen. The piece begins at about the 30 minute mark, after some other pieces. I only wish I could find the lyrics. It's quite beautiful, but I couldn't understand all the words. Anyway, here you go.

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