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The New Normal (Rev. Tom VandeStadt)

The New Normal (Rev. Tom VandeStadt)

The new normal.  

In July, The New York Times published an article calling the wildfires ravaging the west like out-of-control monsters, "the new normal."  In the piece, one fire fighter declares that big fires burning in early July are the new normal.  Another claims that fires shouldn’t be so ferocious this early in the summer and that fires are behaving different than in years past.  A local resident says, we’ve never seen fires like this.  Ever.

            What’s normal?  

Right now, normal is seeing things that aren’t normal.  Seeing things behave in ways we’ve never seen before.  Ever.  Normal is continuous change towards greater extremes. 

That’s Crystal Kolden’s view of climate change and fire.  A fire scientist at the University of Idaho, she’s critical of the term new normal.  “It sounds like we left the old normal, the old conditions, and arrived at a new normal, a new stasis,” she says. “Unfortunately, that’s not what our climate projections are telling us. They’re telling us that this is one step on a very long staircase that’s heading toward extreme conditions.”

Heat waves and drought baking and drying the earth, arctic ice and mountain glaciers melting, oceans heating up and rising, fires becoming more enormous and destructive—just one step on a path heading toward extreme conditions.  

California wildfires, August 2018.

California wildfires, August 2018.

And we’re not standing still.  We’re moving on, step after step, quickening our pace as we go.  Five scientists recently published an article in Nature Communications warning that accelerated warming in the Arctic could lead to “very extreme extremes” of abnormally high temperatures in Europe, the US, Russia, and China.   

If we’re experiencing abnormal extremes now in the new normal and we’re heading toward more extreme extremes, accelerating as we go, then we better take our next step very carefully.  And each step after that.  

“So be scrupulously watchful of how you walk.” That’s how David Bentley Hart translates a passage from the Letter to the Ephesians that other versions of the Bible translate, “Be careful then how you live.”  Either way, that’s what’s called for today.  Living very carefully.  Being scrupulously watchful of our every step.  Or as the Buddha taught with his final words, “Things fall apart, tread the path with care.”  

Be careful.  Be scrupulously watchful.  Care matters. Because care reveals who and what matters to us.  And who and what doesn’t matter.     

We care for people who matter to us.  It matters to us if they’re happy or sad, healthy or ill, well-fed or hungry, safe or in danger.  We may or may not know these people personally, but they matter to us. We care for them.

And when people matter to us, we’re careful.  We treat them carefully, and live carefully so as not to harm them.  We’re aware of how our words and actions affect them, and considerate of their needs.  We offer to help them when they’re in trouble and we’re conscientious, meticulous, and thorough when doing things for them.   

The same goes for other living beings, objects, and the earth itself.  We care for what matters to us, and we’re careful with what matters to us.  Both the Christian and the Buddhist spiritual traditions teach that being caring and careful are eminently important spiritual practices.  Which is to say, who and what matters to us is of great spiritual concern.  Just as who and what doesn’t matter is of great spiritual concern.  

The fate of the earth depends on who and what matters to us, how careful we are, how scrupulously we watch our step.  If other people, non-human life-forms, and the integrity of earth’s bio-systems don’t matter to us, if we’re not careful with them, we’ll continue to harm them and lose them at an accelerating pace.  The fate of the earth is of great spiritual concern, it matters, and it calls for an intentional spiritual practice of care.   

One powerful practice is to ask yourself, who and what matters to me?  With who, with what, am I careful?  And who and what doesn’t matter to me?  With who, with what, am I not careful?  Answer truthfully, not to judge yourself, but to determine a starting point to care for more and to be more careful.  

Ask yourself, can I care for more and be more careful?  Can I expand my care, include more of the earth into the realm of my care?  More people, more living beings, more of the earth’s systems that support life?  Can I be more scrupulously aware of how I’m actually living my day-to-day life, the impact I’m having on the earth, the footprint I’m making?  Can I live more carefully, so fewer things fall apart because of how I live?  

The fate of the earth depends on more people asking themselves these questions and answering, yes, I can care for more, I can be more careful.  And then practicing care, moment-to-moment, day-to-day.  

To practice caring for more and being more careful is to practice changing.  It’s to continuously challenge what we take to be our normal capacity for caring and being careful, then taking the next step into our own personal new normal.  Behaving in ways we’ve never behaved before.  Caring for people, other living beings, and parts of the earth that didn’t matter to us yesterday.  Doing things we’ve never done before, doing things in new ways, and no longer doing some things, because we care for more of the earth, and we’re living more carefully. 

It’s a practice that leads to more profound change, a path that heads toward more extreme conditions—extreme caring, being extremely careful.  It’s what Jesus and the Buddha taught.  It’s what the present and the future calls for—extreme extremes of care. 


That’s what it will take if we have any hope at all—people practicing a spirituality of care, extreme extremes of care, where every person, living being, and bio-system really matters Where every ounce of fossil fuel that’s burned or left in the ground really matters. Where every tree that’s planted, chopped down, or burned really matters.  Where every drop of water that’s used wisely or wasted really matters.  Where every morsel of food, and how it’s produced, really matters.  Where everything one buys, consumes, throws away, and recycles really matters.  

That’s what it will take if we have any hope at all—a spirituality of extreme care, in which people scrupulously watch everything they do to see how it impacts the earth, because everything they do matters.   

Yes, it sounds extreme.  But then again, it’s the new normal.  


Rev. Tom VandeStadt  is pastor at  Congregational Church of Austin , TX, a leading social justice and environmental advocate, a practicing Buddhist, and cofounder of AllCreation.org. Read more of his  writings .  

Rev. Tom VandeStadt is pastor at Congregational Church of Austin, TX, a leading social justice and environmental advocate, a practicing Buddhist, and cofounder of AllCreation.org. Read more of his writings.  

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