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Old King Coal

This is the sermon I preached today in my Preaching Controversial Topics class. The audience I had in mind was that of my internship site last year, Grace Lutheran Church, Petersburg, WV.

            I’d like us all to take a trip back in time to our childhoods. How many of us still remember the nursery rhymes we grew up hearing? Which one was your favorite? Was it Mary Had a Little Lamb or perhaps Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be Quick? Maybe you can help me with one I remember from my childhood. If you know it, please join in:

Old King Cole was a merry old soul
And a merry old soul was he;
He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl
And he called for his fiddlers three.
Every fiddler he had a fiddle,
And a very fine fiddle had he;
Oh there's none so rare, as can compare
With King Cole and his fiddlers three.

Does this nursery rhyme give you the warm fuzzies? Kindly… warm…King Cole…
            I hear something different now however, when someone brings up King Coal. There is a difference in the spelling too. It is not C-O-L-E as in the rhyme, but C-O-A-L, as in the main industry and livelihood of so many in West Virginia. Merry old King C-o-l-e may have been a benevolent, kindly ruler, but how does West Virginia’s King C-o-a-l compare? Some have referred to him as a “Dirty Old Soul” (Econesting 2011).
            What especially makes him a “Dirty Old Soul” (Econesting) is his work of mountaintop removal mining. In other words, dynamite and earthmovers decapitate the mountains! According to NASA, “The waste rock—the remains of the mountains—is piled into neighboring hollows in towering earthen dams called valley fills. The largest fills can approach 800 feet in height and swallow more than a mile of streambed” (Lindsey 1997). This is a very inexpensive way to harvest coal. Besides the fact that the mountains look a little funny, is there really any problem with this methodology? Just check downstream.
            Downstream of the mountains water quality is affected. Fish have dangerous levels of a variety of toxic trace elements. The diversity of fish has declined. NASA further explains:
Hundreds of thousands of acres of some of the world’s most biologically diverse forests outside of the tropics have been lost or degraded, and, to date, efforts to restore them have had limited success. Valley fills have worsened flash flooding during heavy rain events ... Floods from the collapse of valley fills and coal sludge impoundments, though rare, have devastated some watersheds and communities. (Lindsey 1997)

            On the plus side, besides being more economical for the coal companies this method of mining coal is safer for the miners. However, what is the impact upon those living in the area of these mining operations? Blasting has cracked the foundation of people’s homes (Lindsey). The machinery used for mining is an eyesore to neighboring residents. Some oppose mountain top removal mining because they see their natural heritage taken away, which is part of their rural culture. Will it be there for coming generations?
            The beauty of West Virginia and its vast natural resources is captivating. The majestic mountains, flowing rivers, streams, and woods provide recreation, sport, and food for its people. Many of the members of this congregation hunt and fish. You share the bounty of the game you catch through organizations like Hunters for the Hungry. Is mountain top removal mining in other counties threatening this way of life?
            We may not all hunt and fish, but we still appreciate the beauty of our natural surroundings. For me, the mountains mean so much. These mountains helped me discern a call to Appalachia. During my second year of seminary, I spent time here for a rural ministry immersion experience. I drove around, prayed, and asked God if this is where he could be calling me. I felt the mountains spoke to me and affirmed that sense of call. It was as the psalmist declared, "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.  2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge” (Psa 19:1-2 NRS). God speaks to us through the wonders of this world.
            We are connected to these mountains, woods, streams, and rivers and their non-human residents. In the book, The Church on Earth, the authors write:
The meaning of our lives can’t be unrelated to the meaning of our places, and the meaning of all those with which we share that place. We are placed in grace, and graced in place. All places are therefore places in which we may encounter the grace of God… (Wild and Bakken 2009, 21)  

These places are God’s gift to us.
            So, we understand all these wonderful things about creation and we love the beauty of West Virginia, but what how does this connect to Old King Coal? Much of what we do to creation today is because of how we interpret these verses in Genesis:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”… God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen 1:26, 28)

We hear words like “dominion” and “subdue” and perhaps we understand this as God’s command. After all, it’s right there in Genesis where “God said.”
It may be helpful to think of our relationship to creation as that of stewards or caretakers of the earth. Some suggest, “To be fully human…is to rule over the Earth in a way that reflects our role as God’s vice-regents. We are to exercise dominion through servanthood” (Spencer, White and Vroblesky 2009, 88).
            Our acceptance of the rule of King Coal and what he is doing to our natural resources depends upon a misunderstanding of “dominion” and “subdue.” It goes something like this, we as humans see ourselves as the center of creation, at the top of the heap and everything revolves around our needs and wants. Coal mining helps fuel our use and abuse of creation for our comfort. Should mining of coal in the cheapest possible manner continue no matter the cost to this earth? Is this exercising “dominion through servanthood?” (Spencer, White and Vroblesky). What can we do about this anyway?
The ELCA social statement, “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice” acknowledges the tension we live in stating:
Protection of species and their habitats, preservation of clean land and water, reduction of wastes, care of the land—these are priorities. But production of basic goods and services, equitable distribution, accessible markets, stabilization of population, quality education, full employment—these are priorities as well. (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America 1993, 8)

Elsewhere this document admonishes us:
It is in hope of God’s promised fulfillment that we hear the call to justice; it is in
hope that we take action. When we act interdependently and in solidarity with
creation, we do justice. We serve and keep the earth, trusting its bounty can be
sufficient for all, and sustainable. (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 6)
            We can exercise our freedom as American citizens to support legislation that preserves our world. Regarding one mine in Boone County, scientists believe current regulations are “inadequate” and “….the impacts on stream and groundwater quality, biodiversity, and forest productivity were ‘pervasive and irreversible’ and that current strategies for mitigation and restoration were not compensating for the degradation” (NASA 2011). More can be done.
            What does God think? Comparing God’s care to the mountains, the psalmist writes, As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, from this time on and forevermore(Psa 125:2 NRS). All of creation, including the mountains is called upon to praise God in Psalm 148. I could continue with scripture after scripture about God’s love of creation, but suffice it to say, that God called it good in Genesis. What do we say? In the end, whom will we call king…God or coal?

Works Cited

Econesting. "Old King Coal is a Dirty Old Soul." December 15, 2011. (accessed January 1, 2012).

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice." Chicago: Division for Church and Society, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, September 1993.

Habel, Norman C., David Rhoads, and H. Paul Santmire. The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011.

Lindsey, Rebecca. Coal Controversy in Appalachia. December 21, 1997. (accessed January 5, 2012).

NASA. Earth Observatory. April 2011. WorldOfChange/hobet.php (accessed January 3, 2012).

Spencer, Nick, Robert White, and Virginia Vroblesky. Christianity, Climate Change, and Sustainable Living . Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009.

The Bible. New Revised Standard  Version.

Wild, Jeff, and Peter Bakken. Church On Earth: Grounding Your Ministry in a Sense of Place. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2009.


This is beautiful, powerful and so appreciated. Thank you for your passion and love.
Ivy said…
Thank you for stopping by.

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