Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Resilience and Resistance

Resilience and Resistance

Can these cute ochre sea stars teach us something about how to resist disaster? Can their recent return after near extinction give us hope in the face of our own disasters?  When all around us seems to be falling apart (name your daily despair – political, environmental, medical, personal) can the gospel of sea stars help us be resilient?  God, I hope so.

(I first posted this piece in June of 2018, with no inkling of our current disaster.  Rereading it this week I found some comfort and hope in the resistance and resilience of sea stars.
Back then a deadly virus was sweeping the ocean, and the seastars were already weak and stressed from climate change. 80% died.  But moms and dads to the rescue!  With a “reproductive frenzy,” in one generation, their babies have a new resilience, the ability to resist.  Read on for a story of hope…..)

Indulge me in some metaphor or projection or identification with my beloved sea stars.  From human-related near extinction these ochre stars have rebounded in one generation.  Might their astral light shine on our darkness and lend us their aid?

The ochre star’s coastal ocean home, from Alaska to Baja, grows daily warmer and more acidic (thanks to all our fossil fuel use), to the extent that 5 years ago scientists starting noticing what they later named “sea star wasting disease,” overnight disintegration and massive die-offs of this abundant keystone species.  Researchers identified the cause, a virus, which the sea stars could normally resist, but they were so stressed from the changes in ocean temperature and chemistry they could not fight back.

With sea stars virtually gone from the intertidal, urchins and mussels and snails, the animals that sea stars eat, quickly took over, hogging previously diverse habitats, and clearcutting their own favorite food, the kelp, setting off a chain of massive habitat disruption.  Was this the end?

No! Ochre star moms and dads did an amazing thing.  In a “reproductive frenzy” they spawned a whole new generation of sea stars, much more abundant than any seen in years, stronger and able to resist this deadly disease.  Profs at UC Merced marveled at this dramatic example of microevolution.  The 20% of parents who had survived had a dormant but strong disease-resistant gene, which they passed on.  In one generation, the ochre star’s genetic code changed, and is now resistant to the disease.  We see natural selection before our very eyes, a hope story in the midst of so much doom and gloom.

Marine scientist Elin Kelsey kept hearing her colleagues say “we’re tired of writing obituaries,” charting the inevitable death of the ocean.  So she started a twitter account, #oceanoptimism, to gather stories of ocean resilience and recovery.  She hoped for a few responses; they got two million stories in the first month. Kelsey reminds us that fear shuts us down, recklessly speeds us up and hampers our creativity.  Telling hope stories doesn’t mean we don’t keep working for change, nor imply that we are overly idealistic.  Hope stories make us even more active, more creative, more resilient.

So maybe our one small sea star hope story can teach us something.   God says to Job, “Listen to the animals and they will teach you.”  Find the resistant spirit (gene) within you, it’s there, maybe dormant, but it’s there.  I find myself identifying with the old sea stars, those on the brink, what can they do in face of disaster?  We are few, and death seems all around us, but we can find the resistance within us, and then go into reproductive mode.   (Not literally in my case!)  The few resistant parents must spawn a huge resilient and resistant next generation.  Generate new ideas, pass them on the others, enlist youth, get that resistant spirit into the future.  Don’t let it die. 

One of the UC Merced scientist said, “The ochre sea star is perhaps a species with greater resilience than many.  With projected climate swings expected to be more extreme, the ochre sea star’s resilience is perhaps a small, distant bright light on a pretty stormy sea.” 

Like the sea star, we can hold fast (to that which is good), shine a light in the dark, and respond to crises all around us with a massive mobilization.   Of new life.  And of hope.  Resist.
I write these “Blue Theology Tide-ings” devotionals on ocean stewardship and spirituality every Wednesday here and on Facebook.  NOAA photo by Steve Lonhart.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Plant an Ocean Tree!

Plant an Ocean Tree!

Happy Earth Day, April 22!  Plant an ocean tree!  Like a mangrove.

For this 50th anniversary of Earth Day many faith groups, including my beloved United Church of Christ, proclaim “Plant a Tree This Month!”  Check out for fabulous options – plant your own, send $1 to the Arbor Day Foundation for each tree you want them to plant in a national park, $12 to the Organization for African Churches to plant trees in Kenya or Zambia, $20 for olive trees in Palestine.  Of course I sent off money to plant trees in all these places.

But I’m a Blue Theologian, lover of the ocean’s power and promise, prophet of its peril.  On this Earth Day I also want to support the wet parts of Planet Earth.  What is the equivalent “plant a tree” action I can take in the ocean? 

(Always a key question – I understand the need, but what can I DO?  Planting trees seems easy, direct, with obvious impact – more O2 for us to breathe, erosion control, food, and of course beauty. )

Trees live in the ocean too!  Well, in coastal waters, at the rich transition meeting of land and sea.  

A great example is the mangrove tree, a tropical tree which I first learned about at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (sadly closed now, but fish and other living things are being well cared for and fed.) The “Viva Baja!” exhibit about Mexico features a split view, wet and dry, of a mangrove tree, with information about its promise and peril.

Mangroves grow right in the water, and are called the “roots of the sea,” providing shelter and nurseries for varied ocean life (fish, shrimp, birds.)  Their strong roots are anchors for the coastline, slowing down destructive waves and storms, saving lives and property.  

But over 20% of mangrove trees have been cut down worldwide, often cleared for coastal tourist resorts.  Recovery efforts after the deadly Asian tsunami included massive replanting of mangrove and other coastal trees that had been cut down before the disaster, or torn up by the waves, for the sake of future protection.   Rising sea levels also threaten to drown these wet and dry trees.  Mangroves also absorb our excessive carbon, sequestering more carbon proportionally than any other forest, five times more than rainforests.

Mangroves – shelter for babies, shelter from storms, shelter from climate change.  Nurseries and anchors.  But threatened by greedy developers and weather disasters fueled by climate change.  These coastal “liminal” places are beautiful and tender and need protection. is one group that restores mangroves.

If you want to stay in the US for tree planting, there are similar efforts to restore the coastal forests of Louisiana, likewise cut down for tourism or agriculture. The absence of these anchors and seawalls is deadly in storms like Katrina.  Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.

Plant a coastal tree, an ocean tree, through these and many other good organizations.  And the trees of the field (and of the ocean,) will clap their hands, as we go out with joy! (Isaiah 55)
I post these ocean devotionals, Blue Theology “Tideings” every Wednesday here and on Facebook.. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Corona Virus at Sea?

Corona Virus at Sea?

We land mammals are learning all too much about deadly germs, shelter in place, body bags.

But is there corona virus at sea?  

I am a Blue Theologian - my ministry is to honor and advocate for the ocean’s power and promise and peril.  So I wondered:

-Do viruses in general live in the ocean as well as land, in fish bodies as well as our bodies?
-Does this corona virus stop at the water’s edge? 
-Is there a theology of viruses?

Some (very preliminary) Blue Theology wonderings - please respond, correct, add.  (I am not a scientist, I’m a pastor.)

-Yes, there are viruses in the ocean.  In fact, they are the most common living thing in the ocean.  200,000 different kinds.  So tiny that in one spoonful of seawater there are over 20 million individual viruses.  One article I read began, “Swallow a mouthful of sea water and you’ve swallowed more viruses than the population of North America.” 

-Then why aren’t they the ONLY living thing in the ocean? Because of sponges!  Put a sponge in a tank of sea water and in 24 hours they filter feed/have for dinner 98% of the millions of viruses, their main food source.  Sponges are plentiful and live in all ocean habitats. Thank you, sponges. Would that we had a land sponge for this virus.  (Thanks Jim Covel of the Monterey Bay Aquarium for info about sponges and viruses.)

-Marine viruses infect ocean critters just the way land viruses infect us terrestrials.  That’s what they do, that’s what they live for, to move in and poison.  (The word virus comes from the Latin word for snake venom.) Whales and fish and plankton can get sick and can die from viruses.  And yes, there are even some forms of the corona virus at sea, found in sick whales and dolphins.  But Covid 19, this particular corona virus, is only on land.

-Sometimes marine viruses do “good” deeds.  So many and so powerful, they keep certain other populations in check, like deadly marine bacteria.  Their actions move chemicals around the marine ecosystem, like nitrogen, encouraging “nutrient turnover.”  They even have a role in reducing climate change.  Of all the CO2 we land mammals create from our fossil fuels, a full half of it ends up “sequestered” in the seabed, thanks to the action of viruses.  (It’s complicated – a virus-infected plankton will “burst” (I’m quoting scientists here!) and drop their loads of carbon into the ocean floor, which means less carbon in the atmosphere – trust me.)  Thank you, viruses.

-Tragically there is one huge place where the corona virus is extremely active at sea - on cruise ships, military ships, all marine traffic.  Because such ships are contained, the virus’ maritime spread has been rapid and deadly.

Is there a Blue Theology of viruses?  What do viruses and this pandemic teach us about God’s creation on land and sea?

-God’s creation is diverse and complex.  We now speak of food webs, interconnectedness, cycles, rather than food chains, simple linear cause and effect.  There is life and death throughout the web.  As a person of faith I try to choose life, but we know, especially in this Eastertide, that life and death move in a complex dance.

-All are part of God’s creation.  There are no “good” organisms or life forms and “bad” ones.  The viruses are being viruses.  Like every living thing, they want to find dinner, not be someone else’s dinner, reproduce.  Viruses are really good at all three.  Evil as they seem, they are just being who they are. 

-Lamentation.  To weep is a completely faithful response to the current virus deaths of hundreds of thousands of land mammals.  When viruses kill whales and dolphins and seals, we also weep.  “How long, O Lord?” is a faithful prayer.  Life and death happen, but this hurts, I hate this!!

-Healing.  To be faithful is to want to heal, make whole.  Who are our heroes, who is essential?  The healers and helpers.  Salvation means to make whole.  We mourn because death seems to have the upper hand and healers themselves are dying.

-Justice and mercy.  When you do it to the least of these, you do it to me, says Jesus.  The poor suffer more from all viruses, not just this one.  In our cities, in developing countries, the pandemic is much more deadly, the resources much less available.  One of many examples: on the hundred or so cruise ships idle now in US ports, 90,000 crew members wait in tight quarters, employees of American owned companies flying under foreign flags, their crews not protected or paid according to US laws. That is wrong.  Throughout scripture God has a “preferential option for the poor,” but the poor still seem to suffer so much.  One could also say the ocean is a poor cousin of the land when it comes to protection, spending, international cooperation.  When one suffers, we all suffer. God calls us to mercy and to justice.

OK, my heart is breaking for God’s creatures, land and sea.

Photo: marine viruses.  I post these ocean devotionals every Wednesday here and on Facebook.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Jesus' Wet Holy Week

Jesus’ Wet Holy Week

Jesus gets so wet this Holy Week, on Thursday, Friday and Sunday.  Thursday night he plunges his hands in water, spills puddles on the floor and immerses his disciples’ feet, taking on the traditional footwashing role of a servant. Friday from the cross he cries out in desperation, “I thirst!” and gets a sponge of sour wine thrown in his face.  And Sunday he surprises those clean footed disciples at the beach, as they dejectedly search for fish.  With his help - an abundant wet catch, they share in an Easter fish barbeque.

As a Blue Theologian I give thanks to God for water every day of the year, but this week, Jesus’ last and first, it is his wetness I commemorate.  Thursday I may get my feet wet at my own Maundy Thursday foot washing service on the beach.  Good Friday I will worship online to hear Jesus’ Seven Last Words, including that so very human cry, “I thirst.”  And Easter services, I think we’ll have fish for our special dinner, and eat it coast side.

The world is feeling a bit dry and barren these days – I am praying for some wet resurrection.

Note to my preacher readers – have you ever noticed how much wetter Jesus is in John’s gospel than the other three?  Only in John (and not the other three) does Jesus turn the water into wine, only in John does he meet the Samaritan woman at the well and offer her living water, never to thirst again, only in John does he cry from the cross “I thirst,” and only in John does he host a beach barbeque. I tend to think of John as a little serious and abstract, but maybe he was actually a water baby.  We do traditionally say that he was an island guy, lived and died on Patmos.  Maybe his island days made him a Blue Theologian, celebrating all things wet.

Unlike the other gospels’ accounts of how Jesus spent his last night, that he shared a meal with his disciples, John’s has no Last Supper.  Instead, his sacramental act of commissioning and sharing with his disciples is about taking on the servant role, welcoming the guest with a bowl of clean water. At various churches I have served we have celebrated Maundy Thursday with this most vulnerable and gentle exchange – kneeling and washing each other’s feet. 

I invite you to get wet with Jesus this holy week.  Serve others in his name with a quiet moment of simple care.  Hear, and answer the cry of those who thirst, for real clean water, and for justice.  And invite others to walk and eat with Jesus beside the sea.  The catch is always abundant.  And wet.

I like this picture by John August Swanson because both men and women receive the sacramental washing, and because of the swirly fluid robes they wear.  I post these Blue Theology devotionals on ocean stewardship and spirituality every Wednesday here and on Facebook.  Check out for ocean pilgrimages and service trips by Monterey Bay.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Spring in the Sea

Spring in the Sea

Spring means the letter S! 

Spring has sprung on the Central Coast!  With new friends I took an amazing hike through these hillside oaks in the new Palo Corona Park up to Inspiration Pt. overlooking Monterey Bay.  So lush, green, light.

Below the ocean surface it’s spring also, likewise lush, green and light.  Winter storms “pruned” the kelp beds and canopy, meaning more sunlight shines down deep into the kelp forest now than in any other time of year. 

This “scimitar” blade forms in the spring at the very top tip of the 80 ft giant kelp.  With no roots, the kelp is fed by upwelled nutrient-rich water, and grows from its tip, forming tiny new blades (leaves) and floats.  In this bright spring light the kelp grows more than a foot a day!  (Looks sort of like a scimitar sword.)

Spring on the land, spring in the sea.

Scimitar blade, like a sword, slicing through the salty sea.

Shoots from seeds, sprouts and surprises.

Season of springing up, spreading, surfacing.

Storms severed the dark.

Sunlight streams and succors.

Sanctuaries safeguard – secure parks, set apart National Marine Sanctuary, sustainable settings.

Science shows sense and sensibility.

So far, no Silent Spring (thanks, Rachel Carson.)

Sweet smells.

Simply stunning and serene scenes.

Stewardship and Spirituality of the Sea – my calling.

Seasons go in sequence – Summer is next!

See, I am doing a new thing. – check it out!
_________ – come and sea!  I post these ocean devotionals every Wednesday here and on Facebook.  Kelp photo: NOAA. (I first posted this reflection a year ago when Palo Corona first opened, an old golf course and wild hills resurrected as a regional park.  Today I walked in again with an old friend, to get out of our houses and funks, and to see the wildflowers.  There is still lots of life out there in the midst of all this death.  If you feel safe, come walk with me 6 feet apart and see this new life.)