A Whole New World
by Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
April 26, 2021
To view a recording of the service click HERE.
My colleague Melissa Carville Ziemer has a 7 year old daughter who is a passionate and devoted student of prehistory. In a recent article Melissa wrote that she could not possibly begin to catalog the number of books, articles and videos the two of them have studied about evolution, dinosaurs and all manner of prehistoric mammals, insects, birds, reptiles and plants. These days, she wrote, my child is trying to master the periods in the geologic time scale along with some key features of the evolution of life in each period.
While Melissa was making dinner recently, [her daughter] began reviewing the major extinction events. Counting on her fingers: “There was the Ordivician-Silurian (ordovitian-sihluuriun), the one in the Devonian, the Permian-Triassic (perm’-ee-un), the Triassic-Jurassic and the K-Pg extinction…. That’s five… “ she said, “ there is a sixth one…. Now!” she shouted. “Now! Scientists think we might be in another one now. We need to organize a protest.”*
I can picture that. I don’t know Melissa’s daughter, but I know 7 year old enthusiasm and guilelessness. Yes, we need to organize a protest. Why not? Let’s do this thing!
In the article, Melissa includes a footnote – she’d asked if her daughter would grant permission to share this story, and her daughter said, yes, but also, if anyone gets inspired to have a protest, they should wear masks and stay six feet apart.
That’s. Awesome. She’s action-oriented, and safety-minded too.
It happened that I was reading this article about extinction right before seeding this year’s crop of tomato plants – the third year of my new passion – This time I’ve expanded the seed set and also the type, planning to grow snap peas too. And more of my neighbors are getting in on the action – Telma from 2 houses down just planted potatoes and is planning to take the basil I gave her and put it in the garden. Paul from downstairs bought growlights for his seedlings and roto tilled a big chunk of the yard. He’s super excited. We have a sweet little plot out there. I like to joke we’re going to feed the whole neighborhood.
Visions of mass extinction and a sweet little garden plot happened to be juxtaposed in my day. And while the contrast was at first a little jarring, as I was reflecting I thought, maybe this image of a mass ending side by side with this garden for new life beginning is not as disparate as it first appears.
In her sermon titled, “How to survive the end of the world,” Rev. Molly Housh Gorden begins by reiterating just how dire things are right now. But then she also suggests that “the world is always ending somewhere, and another always being born. It ended on September 11, 2001 during my last year of high school,” she writes, “and a new one began September 12. It ended and began in your generation too.”
Maybe it’s not so odd to speak of endings and beginnings in the same breath.
“There have been worlds ending since humans could first conceive of a world,” Housh Gordon continues, “The world has been ending since the moment it began, and it has ended and begun in every age. Here is one good true thing about that,” she goes on, “we each hold personal and ancestral wisdom about how to survive the end of the world, because we’ve already been doing it.”
It’s true. Our collective wisdom has something for us as we face the dire threats of our day. Our inner wisdom has something for us in this moment of great evolutionary significance. It means we already know something about how to do this, I sometimes wonder if it’s even in our DNA. From dust to dust. The word human comes from humus, which means earth. We come from the earth, we are named after it, perhaps we also have, somewhere in our bones, some intuition about how to heal it. An intuition under the surface waiting to emerge.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my neighbors are getting in on the food growing action now. In part it’s the pandemic – victory gardens have been a thing this past year. Fueled, some say, by fear around the supply chain and a desire to take charge of our own destiny.
But I think there’s more to it than that. I’ve been watching various friends and family members get into the growing game for a while now. And I myself got sparked well before the pandemic. That I got into it at all is notable. I would have been been voted most likely to kill a plant in HS and have neglected, dehydrated and abandoned more vegetation in my lifetime than you can count. And yet something, that feels beneath my conscious awareness, started nudging me a few years ago. To plant some seeds, and just see what happens. And I’m finding it… oddly joyful.
And while I’m not suggesting we all need to get growlights and rototill a garden, I am lifting up a resonance that seems to be growing, literally, all around me.
You may be seeing evidence of this too – for example our SEEJ team has been promoting the film Kiss the Ground all about – yes, growing things. Agriculture, farming. You may even have seen it and talked about it, at their reflection session last Sunday.
And, on top of all that, I vaguely became aware of a new group recently – Renew RI – whose name I then started seeing everywhere. Endorse by RI IPL, Rhode Island State Council of Churches, and Rhode Island Black Lives matter … They’re a new group, and they were advocating for green new deal legislation, including a housing bill and an environmental bill and, a food bill. A farm bill – a growing things bill. The group was ramping up, and recruiting people to testify on any one of them. Recruiting people, actually, *that day* Like, by 4pm.
Now this is typically the kind of thing I like to check out and mull over. If I’m going to speak about something I like to prepare and prepare again, make sure the organization accurately stands for the things I believe, I might scour that bill to make sure I agree with everything in it. Before I commit, I like to verify. Which is generally not a bad way to go. But this time, something in me, again, not quite conscious – something said – you just need to do this. Just do it. If you wait, you won’t. Besides which, Green new deal: what I know of it is good. RI IPL, Black lives matter, RI State Council of Churches, I trust each of these organizations. Maybe I don’t need to overmanage this thing. Maybe I don’t need to doublecheck it all. So I signed up, got trained, and spoke up. For the food bill, the farm bill, as it turned out.
Where am I going with this…
Let me step back for a moment.
I think one reason climate change is still a thing, decades past our awareness of its mortal danger…. One reason why we aren’t all organizing protest like Melissa’s daughter suggests, or doing everything we can to save our beloved planet is, I believe, for three reasons. It’s because of ways we are disconnected from ourselves, it’s because of ways we are disconnected from the earth and because of ways we feel overwhelmed by the enormity of this thing and we just shut down.
At least, I know for me personally, there is a level of disconnection from myself that plays into all this. I don’t even always know what I want, what I feel, what matters most to me. I mean, I know it, but I don’t always feel it. So even when something is essential to my survival, there are so many other things that occupy my attention… so many things I’m project managing and moving forward, that I’m not always connected even to things I know are crucial to me. My life is well organized, and it’s on a good track, but on some level, it often feels like something’s missing.
And yes, disconnected from the earth. Unless we are farmers, or maybe keeping chickens or goats, it is possible to almost completely dissociate from the natural cycle of life. And, while on the one hand the supply chains and supermarkets and all the structures of our society are a huge blessing, keeping us nourished and safe, it’s also true that with those extensive infrastructures, a person could choose to live almost completely independent of the natural conditions around us. And lose touch with something you didn’t even know could feed your soul.
And overwhelm. The problem of climate change is overwhelming. And so much appears to be outside of our individual control. It’s too big, there are too many parts, too many people, too much complexity. Theologian and ethicist Sharon Welch, speaking especially to people like me who are white and middle class, says we tend to “collapse under the weight of massive problems such as climate change that cannot be effectively project managed;” I hear that. I feel that. Like I said, I like to know what I’m doing and what’s what and what’s next and I love a good excel spreadsheet to organize, well, everything.
What I hear Sharon suggesting though is that we step away from the familiar ways of doing things, step away from the safe, organized and fully vetted – at least, this is what I hear her saying to me, and just do something. Just do something. She lifts up the wisdom of African American womanists, who teach that “even if it is not easy to imagine the completion of a goal, successful activists nonetheless put themselves wholeheartedly into the fray, stirring up the social context so that new possibilities can emerge along the way.” They do something.
Stepping outside the comfort zone. Making change.
Welch suggests this freeform approach displays a spiritual and theological wisdom. “If what we desire is to foster life,” she says, “surely, along the way, we must ourselves manifest liveliness.”
Which I have to say, there was plenty of in the testimonies for that food bill – for this agricultural legislation. Lots of liveliness. You might not think so, right? Just the word, legislation, is enough to make some people’s eyes roll into the backs of our heads with lack of interest. But there was energy in that zoom room. One testifier after another spoke passionately about the problems in our state like hunger and unemployment and of course the climate. And Spoke of ways in which this bill could be part of the solution. They asked provocatively why action has been so slow and reminded lawmakers about the urgency and their responsibility to their people. Some of our legislators didn’t like that, kept cutting people off. But then more people spoke, more and more of all ages, from as young as 16 to someone who I think was in their 80’s, from all social backgrounds and vocations. The testimony for this one bill lasted over 5 hours.
One testimony particularly stood out to me, emphasizing the urgency of change and the resistance it generates, quoting the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, saying “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men [sic] who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. […] Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
It struck me because even while he was talking to these apparently foot dragging lawmakers, he was also talking to me. Power concedes nothing with out a demand, but neither does the comfort of the status quo. Neither does the comfort of my status quo. My comfort also concedes nothing without a demand.
We, I, must step out of my comfort zone of having things all worked out and thought through. I must manifest aliveness.
I can step out of my status quo and do something. And if it pushes my edges a little, it also forces me to be present, reminds me I’m alive, reconnects me to myself and to something that really matters to me.
It leads me in the path of some of the most courageous people on the planet, African American womanists, who are suggesting on I don’t need to get caught up in all the details.
It gets me back to keeping it simple, like a guileless young child who also knows sometimes you just need to take some action.
And it gets me back to basics, the fundamentals, the ground floor, the ground itself, our earth, who has her own wisdom for us.
Wisdom about endings and beginning agains. Trying new ways, new things, new growth. And I want to get in on that action.
So, here’s where I landed. I designed myself a 21 day challenge. Nothing magical, nothing all consuming, not overwhelming. I will be coming up with little daily 10-15 minute activities that connect me with my love of the earth, or that get me out of my comfort zone to take some climate action. I’m going to commit to posting something every day on our facebook page, and I invite you, if you want, to join me and post something too in response.
Will it change everything? No. But I’ll be loving the earth, acting for climate, and waking myself up, one day at a time. To the extent that you are hearing a similar or your own unique call to spend some time loving the earth, or taking some action, I invite you to join me. I recognize that for some, the best way to love the earth is to care for yourself, and that might mean *not* doing one more thing. My main hope is that as I take some intentional action to wake up, it may inspire some new aliveness in you too. Or maybe it can just be fun.
May it be so.