Our Abode in the Spirit
Sermon by Rev. Douglas Olds (all rights reserved)
First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo
June 23, 2019
Sermon Texts: Lamentations 1.1-4; 11-13
I first began to discern God’s other face during my childhood. Later in adulthood, I learned to discern God in Christ in the face of other people, but in my youth, I was enchanted by the other face of God found in the woods, lakes, snow, and breezes of northern Michigan.
There I discerned a Spirit bounteously and wonderfully clothed. I fell asleep to bullfrogs calling forth mates with staccatos of muted tubas--and woke to loons trilling in daffy hilarity at first dawn. I would hike a trail among giant white pines, making a final turn toward a lake that emerged shimmering with morning sunlight dappling the turquoise ripples stirred up by the open breeze. At other times, I would hike alongside a shallow stream, its currents running over smooth copper-colored stones so to make plinking sounds like an Indonesian gamelan. Along the banks of sloshy bogs stood formal elms, maples, and aspens whose quaking leaves matched semaphore with whispers. The air smelled of damp pine and dank mushrooms. The rain that drummed on my bedroom window or tapped the flaps of my tent under the sky brought a tickling freshness to the breeze. On spring afternoons, I would lie on my back in the deep meadow grass and milkweed searching the billowy clouds for the kind of art the sky’s wind makes against the vivid blue. These sensations filled me with a sense of poignancy and awe. As a youth, I was awake to the other face of God, inviting me as by a whistling breeze. I lived inside a privileged child’s enchantment.
As I grew into young adulthood, my enchantment with nature ebbed. When I was nine, my house was directly struck by a fearsome category four tornado. As I turned 20, I began to be caught up in the swirl of society and soon was beset by the gloom of chaos and rejection. Like so many, I was tempted to consider nature as a place of unpredictability that withheld its wisdom and its bounty. My academic training in ecological economics modeled scarcity of natural resources as the primary condition of humanity striving not just to provision a small household but to actually amass the means for an American consumerist lifestyle. In my efforts to accumulate money, goods, and experience, I found there was never enough. I attributed to our natural condition an insufficiency of the environment to provide me with the American cultural ideal of the good life.
And yet the promptings of the Spirit continued. When I considered starting a family, I began to regret my selfishness and lack of gratitude for all that the world had given me. After some fits and starts at reading the Bible, I stumbled across the 10 Commandments and recognized them as the authentic directives of a Holy God. During my reading of these, I found myself repentant and in tears. And then the Spirit, which in my youth was the invisible, other face of God, took hold of me like a gale. My whole body trembled and quaked. My thoughts were filled with, “you are surely blessed and forgiven.” The Spirit became personal.
The Spirit has continued to act in my life as a kind of propelling force, a wind that harmonizes my personal experience of God’s goodness, purpose, and beauty with God’s intention for me to act. The Spirit blows where it will, without forecast, to interrogate our deepest schemes and desires, redirecting us toward a moral insurgency that seeks the flourishing of all beings. The Spirit transforms us from an obstinate and inert self-creation into the muddy blur and dynamic swarm of God-driven purpose. It is the Spirit-- the fragments of sky—that becomes the unifying, invigorating rebellion against my tendency to inertia. The Holy Spirit is calling me now to snap out of my moral inertia regarding the ways humanity is destroying Creation.
Our reading this morning from the opening to the Book of Genesis describes Breath as the other face of God, inhabiting the sky at creation, brooding and hovering over the primordial deep sea. This picture of Creation is dynamic but not yet riven by violence or chaos. Later in the Biblical narrative, chaos enters into the Creation in the form of human history. “The Land” comes to displace “the garden” in the unfolding of Scripture, as humans strive for control and sovereignty absent God. In my judgment, God-alienated humanity comes to consider nature as the root cause of its destiny to die, and in some perverse yet unconscious madness has come to see nature as an enemy, unthinkingly making war against the sky by its economy of carbon-fueled haste--haste monetized by fire sales of extraction, exploitation, and short-term thinking. Earth and sky hatred stems from our belief that nature is death-dealing. But I believe that it is the rampant and the ill-considered scales of consumerism and fossil fuel combustion that are leading our planet toward death’s final word, where we have only the vaguest hope that we will somehow live on in the memory of its scorchings.
Humanity has not figured out how to live within the limits imposed by the atmosphere to act a carbon dump. We may have already run out of options.
I know many of you are grieving about this—about the already-started catastrophes: food shortages, droughts, refugees, fires, extinctions, climate-related vectors of diseases. It will certainly get worse. And so many are in deep grief and despair. Our first reading this morning gives voice to the grief ancient Israel felt at the disruption of the world they loved—their displacement from Jerusalem.
4The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
and her lot is bitter. …
11All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
to revive their strength…
13From on high [the lord] sent fire;
it went deep into my bones;
he spread a net for my feet;
he turned me back;
he has left me stunned,
faint all day long.
These words picture the despair of a society which has neglected its Creator and the sources of its on-going Creating sustenance. This lamentation by Ancient Israel offers a pattern for how we inside today’s global heating calamity may express our shock and deep grief to God at the displacements that our children will suffer.
“More and more people are facing existential distress as the devastation of climate change slowly reveals itself.”
In this ongoing devastation of earth and sky, Lament is a valid and restorative spiritual practice and pattern for our prayers. The Book of Lamentation witnesses that the people of God may, and often do, go through periods of profound historical grief and dark despair. We can let lament flow from our anguished throats and lips. We can enable our communities to assemble and patiently hear out our lament, to accompany and surround with support those who are grieving and in despair. I propose the best response to despair is not false hope--nor throwing in the towel and living for self alone--but rather the accompaniment of lament by faith.
I began this sermon by including memories of some sounds of nature that enchanted me as a child. The sounds nature and humanity make are conducted by soundwaves in the atmosphere. The ancient Israelites believed the soul was located in the neck or throat of an individual, so that the human soul was expressed in speech. To breathe in the atmosphere and to breathe out with voice partners one’s throat and soul with the Spirit. Praise and lament expressed vocally is a symbiosis of atmosphere and the soul. If we are committed to God’s Kingdom, then we are certainly called to enact and protect this partnership of soul and Spirit. We are called to be trustees of the atmosphere that is intimately involved in all of life. We are called to the insurgency of the Holy Spirit to seek flourishing and freedom for all of Creation, frog and loon, great-great-grandchild and Bangladeshi family threatened by rising sea levels.
My friends, we also need to teach our children Genesis 1’s enchantment of the sky to act as the atmosphere’s trustee. From space, the atmosphere appears as a thin veil, not the thick envelope we imagine from our land-bound perspective. Re-enchantment of our spiritual abode connects us to the well-being of the atmosphere. Consciousness of its thin fragility makes us all the more committed to its preservation and vitality. Deep appreciation of the sky and trusteeship of the atmosphere is a Kingdom of God commitment, and I believe a disciple’s challenge. Once we are convinced that the atmosphere is the abode and foundation of our moral voice, the Spirit of God can guide us to lament. Lament and enchantment alternately anchor us in our glory of trusteeship and the refreshment of our souls. Let us be alive to enchantment whereever we find it, and give voice to lament when it is warranted.
Many are looking to the church for a message for planetary decline. We can move toward virtues that will define our eulogies—eulogy virtues: service, connection, resistance, and teaching. I believe in this climate crisis, we are to accompany one another on our paths of grief & despair, matching grief with faith, pairing those despairing with the faithful.
The atmosphere is the other face of the invisible God for our time. So long as we have breath invigorated by the Spirit in the Sky, we have God’s power to both voice our soul’s lament and enchant the hearts and minds of others. May it be so for the benefit of our neighbors, children, and life-sustaining planet. AMEN.