This sermon is called “Climate, Christianity, Compassion, and Courage.” It could also be called, “What I Learned at Church Camp.” This past week, Mary Mueller, her friend Ellen, and I, and about 180 others went to camp at Seabeck Conference Center on Hood Canal. Those of you who have camped at Scenic Beach have gone right past Seabeck on the way there; it’s just a mile or two away from there. It’s a beautiful spot: deer wander through the grounds and up into the woods, bald eagles sometimes swoop over the meadow. Down by Hood Canal, great blue herons fish for their breakfast. The Olympics are right there past Hood Canal, and at sunset they are cast in silhouette. One night someone got out his telescope and we watched Venus set among the trees on the opposite ridge.
The guest speaker for the adult morning program was Michael Dowd, and his theme was “REAL-izing Faith,” in the sense of basing our faith in the reality of climate change and ecological overshoot of the planet’s carrying capacity. Some of you may remember Michael Dowd; he has been a guest preacher here on two occasions, most recently shortly before the pandemic. He’s very knowledgeable about the environmental state of the planet and can spout statistics and quotes from memory. I would like to give my take on the Cliff Notes version of what he spent four mornings sharing with us.
First of all, he said to abandon hope or optimism that we will solve climate change—that technology will save us, or our political leaders will finally do the right thing, or that we 8 billion people on this planet will all pull together to fix this. He said it’s too late for that. In recent centuries we’ve been expanding population, expanding our use of fossil fuels, expanding civilization, expanding, expanding, expanding. At a certain point you reach overshoot, where this finite planet can’t keep supporting infinite growth. And then we tip into contraction, regress, decline. And there’s no stopping it. That’s where we are now. There’s a possibility that we only have 10 years in which we will be able to maintain the comfortable, high-fossil-fuel lifestyle that we’ve all grown up with and consider normal. There’s a possibility that many, many people will die from climate-related catastrophes in coming years: heat waves, floods, famine, whatever.
As Michael Dowd explained all this, you could feel in the room that all the oxygen had just left the space. People felt punched in the gut. Maybe you’re feeling that way now, too. There’s a reason that climate change scientists don’t bring this up at parties. Kind of puts a damper on the festivities.
So everybody take a breath. And let it out. Take another breath, and let it out.
How do we, as Christians, as a congregation, face the challenges of climate change and ecological overshoot with compassion, and courage, and I will even say hope?
Here’s how we do it: We face the reality. We don’t say, “La la la la, I can’t hear you.” We don’t keep it at arms’ length. Try holding your arms up for 20 minutes sometime—it’s exhausting. Your shoulders will be screaming. Have you ever known someone who had terminal cancer but was in denial? “No, no, it will be cured. I will be fine.” It’s very hard to help such a person, because they’re not dealing with reality.
So we let the reality wash over us, as overwhelming as it is. We become informed. We grieve. We lament. We rage. But we don’t get stuck there. We move through all these emotions, all these stages of grief, until we come to acceptance. Because only when we reach acceptance can we then say, “Okay, now what? What can we do in this reality? How can we live?”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live out of a place of fear and scarcity. Preppers, people who prepare for the end of the world, for Armageddon—they prepare bunkers out in the woods. They stockpile a year’s worth of food and water. They arm themselves. They live paranoid, angry, fearful lives, as far as I can tell.
I don’t want to live that way. That’s not a life. And that’s certainly not the model we have in Jesus.
When Jesus faced his own personal impending doom, he continued to live in love. He continued to speak truth about God. He continued to preach the Good News, which was larger than his one life and carried on even after he’d been killed on a cross. Because the Divine cannot be stopped, even in the face of disaster. In the face of his enemies, he could have said, “Oh, sorry, I take it all back; I’ll shut up and stop healing people and just go live a quiet little normal life under Roman oppression.” He didn’t do that. He would have had to cut himself off from the Divine entirely to live in such denial of God’s presence in the world.
So how do we live? We live into that connection with the Divine, wherever we find it. In our readings today from Isaiah and Psalm 65, we hear celebration of God’s goodness, of the rain and the mountains and the harvest. The trees, in a particularly anthropomorphic image, clap their hands: Isaiah says, “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
When reality seems most fearful and overwhelming, we may be inclined to retreat into ourselves—to go home, pour water into the moat and pull the drawbridge up. That is when Church comes in handy, because in church we can hold this reality in community. We can remember God’s goodness and practice connecting with the Divine in creation all around us. We remember to take deep breaths, to pray, to meditate, to connect, to watch a sunset, to go for a walk, to reach out, to help someone else. That’s the world I want to live in.
We live in hope. Not unrealistic hope, not hope that depends on things out there somewhere over which we have no control, but intrinsic hope that feeds us and moves us forward. In her book Intrinsic Hope, Kate Davies describes intrinsic hope as having these qualities.
An internal orientation to life.
Lets go of specific outcomes and achieving particular results. Has aspirations but is not emotionally attached to achieving them in a specific time frame.
Open to possibilities. Humble, curious and creative.
Based on satisfaction and an acceptance of life, just as it is—even if we don’t like it.
Motivated by love.
Lives in the present moment.
Takes small steps.
A limitless resource.
So we face reality. We grieve. We come to a place of acceptance from which we can say, “Now what?” We continue to connect with the Divine Love that we find in prayer, in nature, in community, and in taking action, regardless of the outcome.
At camp this week we had a musician in residence, Betsy Rose, who comes from northern California—redwood country. I close by reading a poem she wrote in response to our discussions about ecological overshoot and climate change.
I Must Go to the Redwoods
With thanks to Wendell Berry
Betsy Rose 2023
It is time now to go to the Redwoods
And pitch my life at the base of one trunk
Make a nest there
And be still
All the world has gotten too huge, and pressing in
Chaos, war, road rage,
Denial, greed, massacre
It is beyond me
And I can’t unknow what I know
The madmen cut loose
And roaming the streets
In their business suits and arms deals
And ticker tape
The ants and grasshoppers
Valiant in their swarms of rebellion
Crushed over and over
Reassembling and surging forward
Over and over
But it is too much for me now
I will creep away to the Redwoods
I will make a little patch of the planet
Mine to tend
I will lie with my ear to the soil
I will whisper to the underground workers
Microbial earth tenders
I don’t know what I’ll say
But I know it is a prayer
And a song of gratitude
I will rest my belly against the earth belly
And know her roots are stretched out beneath me
I will make this small sanctuary
Mine to tend
Though there is nothing to be done
She does not need anything from me
But my act of resistance is this
Love and stillness
Not meddling or doing
Simple reverence and being with
In this dying time, this mighty downfall
From the nuclear posturing
To the mad car weaving and racing down a city street
Smashing all it sees
I must go
I must go to the Redwoods
And lay my life, my time, my heart
Down at her feet
And be still
[Used by permission of the author.]