I’ve just completed my third month with you, and I’m so grateful for all that I’m experiencing in community here, and for all that I’m learning from you. It’s amazing to witness the Deacons at work, bringing tender care to folks within this congregation – in so many ways – both seen and unseen. Every Sunday, I look forward to hearing the choir and the beauty of their music. And I’m energized by the vital life of this church beyond our worship – all the ways this congregation serves the broader community together.
There’s one part of our life where I am particularly in awe– it is this congregation’s longstanding, faithful commitment to responding to climate emergency. You have been at the leading edge of this Presbytery, and really at the leading edge of churches, in facing the truth of climate change, recognizing it as crisis, and acting. This church was an early and serious adopter of solar power and renewable energy. You’ve done meticulous work calculating your carbon footprint – and then taking action based on your study – as evidenced by the recent repair and expansion of your solar array. You have divested of fossil fuel companies – and you have been a leading advocate nationally for the Presbyterian Church USA to do the same. Along with your clear action, you’ve led the broader community in learning – hosting the transformative Green Chautauqua lecture series. And you’ve shown up – you’ve shown up in protest, insisting that our government – at every level – act responsibly and swiftly in the face of climate emergency.
I’ve appreciated the Sunday Seminars –every third Sunday –sponsored by the Climate Action Team – and particularly the last two sessions on the deep grieving that accompanies awareness of how badly we are harming our planet – and the deadly seriousness of that harm. In the January conversation, there was a particularly sobering moment, when someone said, and others agreed: “I am beginning to think that in this climate emergency we may have passed the point of no return.” There was a holy silence in the room as that possibility was named out loud. Silence that reflected for me an awareness of how real that possibility might be.
For some time now, scientists have been warning us of what they call “climate tipping points.” We know the general trajectory of climate change: Our net generation of carbon is heating the planet. Scientific consensus is that if we reach 1 to 2 degree Celsius of warming – serious environmental “tipping points” could start occurring – things like an “ice collapse.” We know that ice sheets are receding, but certain levels of warming could cause system collapse – not only of ice – but of other biospheres. We are seeing the collapse of coral reefs. Also at risk are vulnerable forest systems – threatened by changing temperatures and fires and other climate effects. What’s even worse is that the collapse of one system hastens the collapse of others.
1 to 2 degrees Celsius of warming puts us in the danger zone. The Paris Climate Accord – if fully and faithfully implemented – is likely to still result in 3 degrees of warming. Our best effort so far is not enough. And so phrases like “global warming” and “climate change” are no longer sufficient descriptors of what is going on – we are plainly in “climate emergency” and must act accordingly.
Within the climate-action community, this has been brought into even sharper focus with the release of a paper by Jem Bendell of the University of Cambria that’s getting substantial attention. It’s entitled: “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy.” As I understand it, Bendell’s main point is that, as part of our climate activism, we also need to start preparing for these tipping points, which he views as inevitable.These “tipping points” when tipped will result in dramatically different ways of living on this planet – so we need to prepare for what he calls “deep adaptation.” The real danger of tipping points does not seem to be contested. The contested issues seem to be whether these tipping points are in fact inevitable (or whether dramatic, concerted action could still avert them), and when they might occur. Bendell says 10 years; other scientists say we may have a bit more time. But, to be clear, there seems to be consensus that these are serious possibilities, maybe even probabilities.
Now that is a broad overview. I need to say what should be obvious: I bring no special expertise to this. I am not a scientist. I am learning with you – I am learning fromyou. But I offer that background to underscore the seriousness of this statement spoken in our conversation about climate grieving: “I am beginning to think that in this climate emergency we may have passed the point of no return.”
The question that rises up in me – when I first heard that statement – and even now is: How do we live in a world like that? Because that’s not just a statement – it’s almost a cry – or maybe a groan – a groan of grieving – the grieving of activism – that all this work might come to naught. But even more than that – it is an existential groan. This is our planet – our only home – our life. If we are talking about the possibility that we may have passed the point of no return, with the care of our planet – if that’s the groan that is welling up within us:
How do we live in a world like that?
This morning’s Scripture – this passage from Romans – takes us right into the midst of creation’s groaning: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, and not only creation, but we ourselves, we who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we groan for the redemption of our bodies.”
The Letter to the Romans is the at the heart of the Apostle Paul’s writings. He has been feverishly travelling all over the known world – bringing the urgent good news of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ – birthing churches in one city, and then moving on to the next, chased by his opponents everywhere he goes. And Paul wants to visit Rome – to go to the heart of the empire – and so he writes them a letter of introduction – this Letter to the Romans – and he lays it all out: What God has been doing all along, God is doing in Jesus Christ. We have been enslaved to death – but in Jesus Christ and in the Spirit that now enlivens us – God is setting the whole world free, saving the whole world from everything that does it harm. Good news bigger and better than ever we could have imagined.
And at the heart of all that, in the midst of all this Good News, in chapter 8, we hear this groaning. Creation groans. We groan. The Spirit groans – praying for us in groans too deep for words.
Notice a couple things: The Apostle Paul writes of creation as a sentient, conscious being. Creation – everything that God has created including us – what one writer has called – “the realm of nature and the human beings who inhabit it”– Creation has a pulse, and a life, and it groans. Next, notice that this text takes our groaning seriously – we groan with all creation, as a part of it – every bit of everything, groaning – and then the Spirit joins in with us. One writer says, “If incarnation and the cross show how God enters into human experience, this groaning Spirit shows us that God stays with the broken world all the way through.” And notice the deep connection – the deep ecology – the web, the root system, the ecosystem of connection here – creation, us, Spirit – all connected – all groaning in the pains of labor – groaning for the redemption of our bodies – praying in groans too deep for words.
So when we groan: “I am beginning to think that in this climate emergency we may have passed the point of no return" --
Our groaning for creation, our groaning within creation, creation’s groaning, it’s all right here in this Scripture. And there’s something else here in this text – alongside all the groaning – that at first blush – may not make a whole lot of sense: Hope. “For in hope, we have been saved.” In the midst of all this groaning – Hope.
Now that may seem out of place at first, because we have popularized the concept of “hope” – most of the time – to mean something like wishful thinking: “I hope I win the lottery.” That’s not hope. That’s a mere fancy. Hope is grittier than that.
Rebecca Solnit writes in her book, Hope in the Dark, that hope is all about uncertainty. She is clear: “Hope is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine.” Hope actually begins with the acknowledgement that we don’t know what will happen – that life is uncertain. Solnit writes: Hope “locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act... Hope is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and when it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.” Hope is about uncertainty – not knowing – and in that not-knowing finding the freedom and power to act.
Joanna Macy – an environmentalist and Buddhist teacher – speaks of that in terms of what she calls “active hope.” Like Solnit, Macy locates our hope in our uncertainty – and even more deeply in our experience of suffering – the pain we feel along with the rest of creation – the ache. In that shared pain and groaning, (1) we experience a deeper sense of connection; (2) we clarify our longing – the world we are longing for and groaning for – a world that is healed and whole; and (3) with all that, Macy says, we get to choose how we will respond.
For Joanna Macy, hope is a practice. And so she recommends what she calls “the work that reconnects” – which was the subject of our most recent Chautauqua lecture. She describes it as a continuous spiral of practice, in which we:
1. express gratitude
2. honor our pain
3. experience deeper sense of connection
4. go forth and act
We experience uncertainty – that uncertainty leads to groaning – in that groaning, for that which we love, we find a deeper sense of connection – and out of that deeper sense of connection, we find our way to hope – and to a life worth living – even as we groan.
All of that is right here in this Scripture too. “Hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it patiently.” The Scripture locates hope in the midst of our uncertainty and our groaning, connected to all creation. In our groaning together and our hope together, we experience a deeper sense of belonging with each other and with all creation.
The Scripture adds to that the healing, restoring presence of the Spirit – God at work – the Spirit of Christ groaning in us – at work in us. As one of my teachers says of this text: What we see here is God’s work of salvation – for all creation – “the gradual process of world restoration and healing” – “God’s work of world-healing,”alive in us, in our groaning and in our belonging and in our longing for a world made whole.
The God who created the world in love has never stopped loving it. The creation story that the children read with Libby and Patrick, and the groaning Scripture, and the life we live now are all connected. In the beginning, the Spirit hovered over the creation; the Spirit has been groaning with all creation ever since; and even now, the Spirit is empowering and enlivening us to mend and heal the world God loves.
We hurt for the world God loves because we love the world God loves, and we are part of the world God loves, and we long to be a part of its healing. And so, before I sit down, I want to offer an even more specific answer to the question: How do we live in a world like that? I heard Congressman John Lewis interviewed on the On Beingpodcast. He lived through the worst days of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s – and, in the interview, he was describing how he made it through those days that he despaired that they might never see the day that they were working for. And he said this – “You have to have this sense of faith that what you are moving toward is already done... you live as ifyou are already there.” And in the living “as if” we create the world we long to see.We long for a world that is healed and whole – where we live sustainably, and in connection with all that is – and where every creature can live and thrive.
With that longing and that love, the Spirit empowers us to stand in the midst of creation’s groaning – and our own – and hope. The Spirit enlivens us to live as if the world we long for is already here. Hope doesn’t require that we know how it will all work out. Hope doesn’t require our sunny optimism; it certainly doesn’t require that we stop groaning. Belonging to each other and all creation, and groaning together with the Spirit as if in the pains of labor, hope only requires that we long for a better world –even as we groan – and that we live our lives together to make it so.
© 2020 Scott Clark
A full description of the congregation’s faithful response to climate emergency can be found in its recent Mission Study and in its most recent Annual Report (2019) See Lenton, Rockstöm et al, “Climate tipping points – too risky to bet against,” Nature, vol.575, Nov. 28, 2019, pp. 592-95. https://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf Id. My foundational understanding of Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the life-context for his letters is informed by Udo Schnell, Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology (Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2003); and Herman Waetjen, The Letter to the Romans: Salvation as Justice and the Deconstruction of Law (Sheffield Phoenix Press: Sheffield, UK, 2011) Waetjen, p. 215. See Daniel Kirk, Working Preacher commentary, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2151 Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark (Haymarket Books: Chicago, 2016 ed.) Solnit, xiii Solnit, xiv Joanna Macy, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy (New World Library: Novato CA, 2011); and Joanna Macy and Molly Brown, Coming Back to Life (New Society Publishers: Canada, 2014). See Waetjen, pp.213-14. https://onbeing.org/programs/beloved-community-john-lewis-2/