Saved by Love
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
April 22, 2018
Our first reading is a set of quotes:
The first is from a 2015 sermon by UU Minister Rev Catie Scudera. She writes: The World Wildlife Federation warns that we are in our fifth decade of annually exceeding the planet’s “bio-capacity”—the Earth is not able to regenerate the amount of resources we use every year. In fact, humanity currently uses 50 percent more resources than the Earth can renew. In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a two-thousand-page report that concluded that if humanity continues to live in carbon-intensive ways and emit the current levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we will certainly exceed a two degree Celsius global warming, “resulting in rising sea levels, heat waves, droughts, and more extreme weather.” Scientists are concerned that as a human species—not even considering all the other species with whom we share the planet—we may not be able to adapt to that increase.
The second is from Naomi Klein from her book This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs the Climate: “Underneath […] is the real truth we have been avoiding: climate change isn’t an “issue” to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message—spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions—telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet. Telling us that we need to evolve.”
Second Reading Reinhold Neibuhr
Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;
Therefore, we are saved by hope.
Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense
in any immediate context of history;
Therefore, we are saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous,
can be accomplished alone;
Therefore, we are saved by love.
We are approaching earth day in an age of cataclysmic predictions for our planet. Like the ones you just heard. Odd weather events, devastating storms, and a forecast that says, if we do nothing, things are likely to get a whole lot worse.
And yet, how much has this awareness filters into our day to day? How much do we hear about it, talk about it? When temperatures hit the 70’s in December a couple of years ago, I couldn’t help but notice the number of newspaper articles celebrating the joy of a summer-like day in December, but not saying anything at all about global warming or minimizing the possible connection.
I don’t know about you, but raising the topic in my social circles is rarely a big hit, more likely people smile faintly and look down or away or they’ll change the topic quickly. Or I will.
I was given a cartoon years ago, I don’t remember by whom. In it, you see an erudite looking gentleman with a notebook sitting in a chair, psychology diploma hanging on the wall behind him. On the couch lying next to him is a large elephant, on his back, legs dangling in the air. The expression of the elephant is bereft as he laments: Sometimes even if I stand in the middle of the room, no one acknowledges me.
We have an elephant in the middle of the room, and we do not necessarily want to acknowledge it.
You’ve probably noticed, that sounding the alarm isn’t exactly helping. It almost seems like the louder it gets, the more we hear frightening things about that poor neglected elephant, the more it gets ignored.
¬I feel it. Last year in anticipation of earth day I skimmed books, watched movies, read articles, watched clip after video clip. I started doing that last month too and then I stopped. It’s almost like the more I read how bad it’s going to be, the less I absorb. The more terrifying the predictions, the more some part of me wants to label them catastrophic thinking, or throw them into the category of fantasy movies that I can then tune out. Or, I hear about schemes like putting a giant space umbrella in the sky or liquifying CO2 and think to myself, oh good. They’re on it. Someone will fix this. ‘I calm myself with thoughts that everything’s gonna be okay, I find ways to keep the troubling predictions at bay.
Denial is a natural phenomenon. An innate reaction to overwhelming circumstances. An evolutionary safety switch that protects organisms like us from circuit overload, blinders that enable us to continue functioning under even extreme stress. An understandable evolutionary adaptation.
When the news is really tough, or requires more of us than we think we can handle, I suspect that’s where we all start. We minimize it, we block it out, we focus on what’s right in front of us so we can just keep going.
We know about denial, of course. We see how this works in every area of life.
I had a highly tuned off-switch as a kid, for things like room cleaning, dish washing and homework doing. The louder the admonitions got, the more excuses I found to stay in my bedroom, or the bathroom, or some other room that was not where I was supposed to be. Oh look, here’s a book I need to rifle through, right now. Is that my mom calling? I really should wash my hands again. Look at this soap, it’s so pretty. Oh, gosh, I missed doing the dishes? Again? I don’t know where the time went….
As adults the repercussions of shutting our eyes or ears can be more significant than an annoyed parent or an unwashed dish or two.
We deny we have a problem with money, and we keep spending. Or we deny how upset we are by someone’s anger and we don’t set boundaries. Maybe we deny our illness so we don’t have to take the medicine, or we deny the difficulties in our close relationship so we don’t have to work on them, or work on us.
The bigger the issue, the more it calls for change in us, the more guilty we feel for what we haven’t yet been able to do, the more likely any of us is to want to shut it out. It can become an escalating dynamic – the worse things look, the thicker the barriers we build against it. And things get still worse.
And the climate crisis? Wow. Well. Talk about a call to change. Talk about denial.
Even leaving aside those actively promoting the idea that climate change doesn’t exist or isn’t caused by us, I have to look at my own innocent hopeful reliance that “someone” will come up with a technical fix. Though I am grateful to those who are trying, some of the ideas leave me wondering. We know there is an interdependent web. We know when we tinker with one element of a system, other elements can respond in unpredictable ways. When scientists came up with DDT, there were unexpected repercussions to the health of the rest of the ecosystem. Although a giant space umbrella to block the sun may help slow global warming, what other effects will it have?
And we kinda recognize this anyway, we kinda know the difference between a bandaid and real healing. We know ultimately if we don’t address the root of a problem, it will resurface again in another form. We are consistently exceeding the bio-capacity of our earth, and this is a problem that space umbrellas will never solve.
Naomi Klein puts it this way, What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.
And as we heard from her earlier: We need an entirely new way of sharing this planet. We need to evolve.
In this month of emergence, I’ve been thinking about what that evolutionary process of emergence looks like.
In this time of destruction, and deconstruction – fires, floods as well as political upheavals, I’ve been thinking about how destruction, dissolution and emergence sometimes go hand it hand.
And I’ve been thinking about transformation, and what that takes. For societies, for individuals. What it really takes, to change.
In 12-step groups there is a concept called the gift of desperation. It’s what happens when the consequences of unhealthy actions become so destructive as to be undeniable. An alcoholic totals the car, a drug addict loses his job, a gambler’s spouse walks out on them. Circumstances become desperate, which feels awful, but the person drops their denial, which is a gift. Finally, resistance dissipates, and change becomes possible. The person is finally willing to open their eyes to a full picture, and take actions that address the root of the problem. Healing becomes possible. Peace and serenity become possible. Something new can finally emerge.
I suspect, though, that when it is received as a gift, desperation does not operate alone. There’s another ingredient. Something deeper, something lasting, something fundamental that is also in the mix. Some would call it connection. Or grace. Some call it God. Some call it Love.
I’m convinced that this force is there, not just in the beautiful and lovely, but right there in the desperation. In loss. In grief. In the hardest places. Growing our capacity hold it all.
I struggle with denial and numbness around climate change. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t know how to process it. I feel guilty about what I haven’t yet done. I resist thinking about it. But I know I need to.
I find myself drawn to stories that embody this wider truth, of not only the desperation we must face, but also this wider, undefinable love that is, somewhere, in and through it all. And helps us hold it all.
I’ve been finding myself drawn to the story of Tim DeChristopher.
He’s been here, at our church, a couple of times. He preached for us in March and Many of you saw the film, bidder 70, shown here in February. The film is all about the bold action Tim took to the preserve the gorgeous, red rock wilderness of Utah. He disrupts an illegal oil and gas auction, preventing big oil from defacing the land for development, and preventing yet more oil from being burned. The film journals the story of his activism, his passion for this planet and his willingness to go to jail to lift up the urgency of our situation. All of which makes him kind of a climate justice hero, in my book.
The question I’ve been holding… How did he do it. How did he find the willingness to jump in and the courage to continue. How did he not just go through it but lead through it, inspire others through it, somehow keeping up his hope, his faith and his love? How did he emerge from the helplessness & denial that is all around and inside us? How does anyone?
I was struck, in the film, by Tim’s…love… for the land, for other people. As the film shows shot after shot of him, backpacking in the canyon-lands in Utah, you get a palpable sense of his passion for these places. And you get an inkling of what fuels his passion for environmental justice. And, again and again, Tim talked about the importance of his connection with others. The support of his community, his commitment to climate justice not just for the sake of the earth, but for all the people who live here.
So on the one hand, you have this person, who is connected to love of the land, love of others. But I was also struck by his description of his state of mind. Which was: troubled. More than troubled. Bereft. In one scene he describes listening to a Nobel prize winning scientist explain that it’s too late to avoid all the worst consequences of climate change. “To have a Nobel prize winner say that it was too late to protect my own future. It shook me to the core.” Tim said, “I went outside the hotel and I cried. I mourned for my own future. I mourned for the future of all of us.” But, then, also, as he said later: “it woke me up. It sank in, finally, how serious it was.”
A turning point. Setting up the moment when Tim takes his leap, wades into the waters of civil disobedience and disrupts that oil and gas auction. He, basically, breaks the law. [on the one hand] “I had all these visions of my future & the catastrophic effects of climate change.” he says, looking back at his thoughts in that moment. “But, if I take this action there’s a decent chance I could go to prison. Could I live with that? And I thought. Well, yeah.” He continues “[… But] knowing I had a chance to do something about it but didn’t because I was afraid of the consequences? I thought no, I couldn’t live with that.” So, he says: “I finally took that step and jumped all the way in and started winning parcels. [preventing the land from being sold to oil companies]. When I did that, my head was totally clear. I felt this real feeling of calm come over me and that conflict I was dealing with, was gone.”
What does it take, to change? To break through numbness, apathy or denial? To become willing to open our eyes to even that which deeply troubles us, allow it to change us, making way for courage, and a deeper peace to emerge on the other side?
How do we connect with, create, the kind of sustaining love that flows through, guides, and steadies us?
Tim was ultimately sentenced to two years in federal prison. At his sentencing hearing he says of his civil disobedience: this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.
Whether or not we are called to become climate justice warriors, there are many ways to love our earth and each other in this time. We start from where we are, and we grow. One act of love at a time. From biking to church to use the new bike racks, to divesting from fossil fuels. From taking action to ensure more green energy in this state, to using and washing the cloth napkins green sanctuary has made available for our events. From working to ensure we elect candidates who are committed to the earth, to reaching out to newcomers, to each other, building a community of support and care right here. Every time we make a choice to love the earth and each other with our actions we grow in our capacity to hold it all.
When Tim came and preached here a few weeks ago, his friend and fellow activist Brian Cahall sang a song called Praise be the Ragtime band. It’s been playing in my mind ever since.
When Tim introduced it he said something like this: We can’t fully hold the unthinkable in our minds. The situation with our climate is full of paradox and complexity that we don’t know what to do with. But when we allow grief and gratitude for what we love to work together, we can hold in our hearts what we can’t really understand in our minds.
I’d like to share that song with you, again, this morning. An invitation into grief and gratitude. Into trouble and the larger love that holds it and us all.
If you feel so moved, I invite you to sing or hum along, or you may want to just sit and take it in.
[Ellen plays Praise be the Ragtime Band by Brian Cahall]
I invite you to rise in body or in spirit for our closing words.
May we open our eyes to the waters of trouble around us, allow love to hold and move through us, finding healing, and freedom, as we do what we can for our one and only precious beloved earth and all who live upon it.