“Only two of the 18 launched lifeboats rescued people after the ship sank. Lifeboat 4 was close by and picked up five people, two of whom later died. Close to an hour later, lifeboat 14 went back and rescued four people, one of whom died afterward. Other people managed to climb onto the lifeboats that floated off the deck. There were some arguments in some of the other lifeboats about going back, but many survivors were afraid of being swamped by people trying to climb into the lifeboat or being pulled down by the suction from the sinking Titanic…”
— from Wikipedia article “RMS_Titanic”
Crises in life reveal character, as well as the need and opportunity for grace. The year 2011, accordingly, appears to have been one in which a great deal of character is being revealed every day as crises reinforce each other in unanticipated ways.
For example, I wrote here two years ago about how rapidly the options were closing on equitable sharing of economic sacrifices if the earth’s climate continued to warm as environmental models suggest. I noted there that we needed to start preparing to help each other under a set of consequences we might no longer be able to avoid. The situation is even more pronounced now, as noted in an International Energy Agency (IEA) report issued recently that incorporates the timescales required to replace infrastructure we’re already building and considers whether we can hold the temperature rise below 2 degrees centigrade (what they call the 450 Scenario):
“Four-fifths of the total energy-related CO2 emissions permitted to 2035 in the 450 Scenario are already locked-in by existing capital stock, including power stations, buildings and factories. Without further action by 2017, the energy-related infrastructure then in place would generate all the CO2 emissions allowed in the 450 Scenario up to 2035.”
Such changes, and the economic disruption they imply, will not happen by 2017 without violence. A China that builds ghost cities and makes a new coal-fired power plant operational about once a week in order to prevent social unrest will not accept such disruption. A Europe in which portions of the population riot and governments fall trying to impose austerity measures that other European governments require lest they fall victim to the wrath of their populations will not do that. An America with government already projecting it may take until 2016 just to get back the jobs it lost in the Great Recession will not do that. Tomorrow’s catastrophe seldom takes precedence over today’s catastrophe once it occurs to you that you aren’t immune to today’s catastrophe either. That’s when character starts to emerge and has to be subject to self examination.
So, we are losing the capacity to affect any climate impacts humans are going to have through policy on a meaningful timescale. Our fates are in the hands of the atmosphere, the oceans, and the sun. Not everyone is sure the climate’s “iceberg” is out there, but if it is, we are not going to be able to turn or stop our ship in time.
Then we have the interaction of the economic with the military to produce an additional set of crises. I suggest that it is not an accident that repression in the Middle East becomes intolerable to those populations when the meager (by Western standards) safety nets their governments can provide are frayed by world economic conditions and the tremendous inequality in their societies becomes more visible. Although food and energy are excluded from official “core” inflation measures in the US for technical fiscal management, food and energy prices are certainly felt by the average person in society, and both sectors have seen dramatic inflation in many third world countries.
As I wrote in a post last month, these events, combined with the West’s continuing economic problems and war weariness, are creating a power vacuum in the region and are trapping key actors in what they regard as life-or-death dilemmas. Since that post, more of the Arab states have been drawn, unsuccessfully, into the process of trying to stop the increasing violence in Syria. Further, the International Atomic Energy Agency has issued a report showing unmistakably that the Iranians, Syria’s chief protector, are carrying out a program of nuclear missile development that is closer to nuclear “breakout” than Western governments have been willing to publicly admit (though it’s been known within their intelligence communities which provided much of the evidence to the IAEA in the first place). So now the saber rattling of a military option of dealing with Iran’s program, with all the fearsome human, economic, and political consequences of a general Mideast war, is in the public domain again, and more actors are approaching those life-or-death dilemmas.
Meanwhile, the covert war that has already been underway intensifies. An Iranian base named as early as 2002 as home to a unit of 800-mile range missiles suffered an “accident” yesterday. Even if one does not believe the most ominous analysis of why the Iranians were hit yesterday, involving trying to load a nuclear warhead aboard a missile, movement of “ammo” at a long-range missile base that can produce this kind of explosion says that the ammo being moved was not small arms.
Restoration Scriptures suggest that we should be “anxiously engaged in a good cause”. For some of us, the good cause may be in helping people to get into the right church. For some it may be helping people get out of the wrong church (or any church. For some it may be addressing societal issues from a political or professional standpoint. For some it may be embedding the call to a better (more “Zionic”) world in the goals and hopes of our children. For others, it may be healing — or at least lessening — the burdens already being borne from collective or personal human sinfulness.
To me, at this point in history, all of these things can be connected to the analogy of building, preparing, loading, launching, and steering lifeboats. Optimists and pessimists may debate whether or how soon the “ship” may go down, or what’s the best way to save or evacuate it, but there are already far too many people in the water to ignore.
The lifeboats must be sturdy — not half-empty promises like the RMS Titanic’s were when the ship began to flounder. They must be launched in time, and they must have crews who are committed to the safety of the passengers. (In an earlier time, we might have said that the Shepherd must love the sheep.) Those qualities are more important than the size or comfort of the lifeboat.
And we who embrace Christianity can expect that the Eternal Captain will direct us as we engage in finding our proper “lifeboat stations”. He’s already proven His willingness to sacrifice His life for the safety of His ships and His passengers.
I wrote last Christmas about how a chance occurrence with a stranger at a gas station opened the way for my wife to answer a felt call to involve a foundation (The Tacy Foundation) she’d created in providing the emotional healing power of music to soldiers returned from war with life-altering wounds. Although the Foundation was able to make and distribute more than 2000 CDs to bases both in the US and abroad, the highlight for her was being invited to go to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and place CDs under their tree as presents for wounded soldiers undergoing medical rehabilitation after returning from Afghanistan or Iraq.
This year the opportunity that sprang from that wonderfully miraculous encounter has continued to grow.
In order to help control defense costs by realigning and closing “excess” military facilities, Walter Reed has been in the process of physically relocating and consolidating itself on the grounds of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland (shown in figure to the left) since 2005. The transfer of services from the existing to the new facilities was intentionally gradual to minimize disruption for thousands who depended for ongoing care from Walter Reed during a time of continued war. The end of operations at the old facility occurred on August 27, 2011. As noted by Wikipedia:
“That merged facility will be staffed by Army, Navy, and Air Force medical personnel and will be the core of an integrated military medicine system in the National Capital Region (NCR). What in 2005 were three medical centers, a small community hospital, and 19 clinics offering medical care to military beneficiaries in the NCR will become a single tri-service medical center, a large tri-service hospital in Northern Virginia, and 20 area clinics.”
The consolidation of these facilities also means consolidation of volunteer support services, in practice through the Red Cross office previously operating for the Navy on the Bethesda site. However, anyone who has been in or worked as a civilian for the military quickly learns that the Army, Navy, and Air Force have very different cultures from each other, and establishing smooth tri-service command structures is never as easy as it appears on org charts. The same thing happens when you try to blend Red Cross organizations that have focused on the different services — there are delays in transferring older programs to comply with needs and restrictions at the new facility as the new Red Cross office sets its priorities.
My wife and a few of her more advanced students went through an extensive process last summer to be accepted as volunteers to be authorized to provide mid-day recitals on a quality piano that sits in the main building atrium lobby. At first it appeared that nothing would come of the effort, but again, a champion appeared who made it happen. And my wife and her students were one of the last programs brought in before the process of registering volunteers shut down as the Red Cross offices were themselves refitted for the new structure.
So now she travels to Bethesda one morning each week to play (and some of her students cover other days). Patients and medical staff stop by to listen. Last Wednesday, just before Veterans Day, she had the humbling experience of a young soldier, a multiple amputee not yet healed enough for prosthetics, pull up his wheelchair next to the keyboard and watch her like a hawk as she played. As she finished her piece, she stopped, stood up, and offered him her personal thanks for all that he had given to protect people he didn’t know and probably would never themselves know what he had paid.
Later a young nurse came up to her and said, “That’s why I love working here. I want to be somewhere where I can make a real difference.”
May each of you reading this have the opportunity of Grace in finding your “lifeboat station” — the place where your gifts, talents, presence and commitment can make the most difference.