(Picture: visiting the Rodin museum in Paris last year)
Feelings are a gift. To feel reminds you that you’re human, or at least, a living being. Feelings, along with faith, are our equipment for the unexpected.
And we can expect more of that.
Even some of the more questionable feelings, like anger and outrage. It was one of the most smugly quoted verses I encountered early in my faith journey: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26).
If I can stomach the smugness, it’s good advice.
I remember Fr Gerard Hughes, author of ‘God of Surprises’ talking about the uses of pain. I was sceptical. Though that was a long time ago. He also spoke inspiringly to that group of Iona Volunteers (that included myself) in 1990 about the crucial value of spirituality in sustaining a life of activism without burning out.
Over the last year, I have opened myself as never before to bad news. It drip-feeds into my consciousness every time I open my computer to check my emails. Perhaps I’m grateful it still seems strange to someone who did their growing up in the sixties and seventies. When crassness and (nuclear) despair about ‘no future’ seemed to be something one could dismiss or rise above.
Those were the circles I moved in, then.
I even, reluctantly accepted the manifest lies about the ‘need’ for nuclear weapons.
I had quite a few ‘conversion’ experiences ahead of me. And by the grace of God, I also found friends to help me through them. Companions. Angels in disguise? Thank God, anyway.
And I became angry, and afraid, I experienced injustice, and sadness. A year of inescapable bitterness, being held up for ministry training. And these things all passed. I married, we had children, my wife became terminally ill, I became exhausted, then a widower. Feelings were big, crushing at times, but not inappropriate. I didn’t wish them away. They had a logic.
But the question of what to do with the feelings about the climate crisis is still a new one. Nothing has (adequately) prepared me. I need a bit more ‘conversion’. I’m still learning.
The Amazon is burning, the Arctic is burning. And yet we’re still here, for now.
Why? what have we still to do. ?
Seriously – and maybe surprising, even if it ought not to be surprising – scripture is significantly sustaining. Matthew chapter 6 helps me each and every day. Worrying less about tomorrow than I might, even though there is plenty to worry about. And it’s likely that will be the case for the rest of my life and those of my children. And accepting that to be the case, we need a sustainable approach to the gift of emotions.
A taller order. ‘Hope beyond hope’, I think someone called it. Retelling a story ancient even in his own time.
For now, I’m comfortable, not in immediate danger. Some of my property was stolen, but I was in a position to replace it. A bit of stress, but Life carried on.
The most irritated I got recently, was when a train which was running in the middle of the night claimed to have no room ,and I knew this was not the case, but an operational fiction. Maybe that’s out of proportion. But emotional proportionality often eludes me.
(I was going to say “ eludes us”, but I can’t presume to speak for you.
The political developments of the last few weeks, involving reprehensibly total indifference to the environmental situation, have been much more problematic.
The crimes of pig-ignorance…..
The stability I knew growing up, including my delight to be part of a European Community, has made almost every development seem outrageous. It’s been suggested that this is calculated: ‘outrage fatigue’ enables unacceptable things to be slipped in or hidden behind other news, or strategically numbs us. Better than crushing us?
To sleep, perchance to dream. Or not.
Somehow I need to preserve and give thanks for the feelings which are there for short-term action, without experiencing them all day every day.
The fight and flight stuff, in reserve, and the keeping going stuff, in balance, denying neither.
Well, maybe that’s what prayer is for. And the idea of “sustain” rather than “save” is creeping more into my own. As well as the acknowledgement of limits. Transformation, rather than resolution of conflict. And the companionship of God, come what may.
This ‘conversion’ malarkey is a lifelong ….thing!
Again and again and again.
“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26).
If I can stomach the smugness, it’s good advice, as the sun goes down, and there’s still tomorrow.
And joy, and laughter as well.
In January I recalled the tragic poetry of Bertolt Brecht “What times do we live in, when a conversation about trees seems like a crime, because it involves silence about so many horrors?”. (See this archived blog entry) . Just a few months later, in one of so many grim reverses jammed into this ever-concertina-ing age, I find even those thoughts tossed up in the air and shaken to bits. January has already become “back then”. Spiritually, we are, or ought to be at a tipping point. ‘Business as usual’ is slipping beyond mere obsolescence into toxicity.
Because as if we needed more perspective, the Amazon and the Arctic, those areas perhaps so like the wilderness in which Christ was prepared for his ministry, – and this precisely because ‘wilderness’ was presented in the New Testament as the place impervious to the shaping influence of “civilised” humanity – these holy places of God’s encounter are ablaze.
Out of the end-of-the-world atmosphere of Nazi Germany, just heading into War on the back of Fascist racist populism, Brecht lamented the tragedy that soft and beautiful things like “a conversation about trees” seemed to provide “the opium/anaesthetic of the people”. Getting them through a dark day without the engagement that was called for. I saw today that even in defiance of the recommendations of a right-wing think-tank, the naked bribe of reduced fuel duty -and thus encouragement to burn more with impunity – may be dangled before voters. You couldn’t make it up!
Never mind religion or opium: try “The petrol of the people!”
Today, if I were to approach the desperation of Brecht, I might suggest that it has finally become a crime to *avoid* conversations about trees: even that to worship God or indeed, to pursue social justice without acknowledgement of the deep spiritual challenge of global momentum to catastrophe, will ring hollow because it ignores the overarching context of our day.
Though, in the meantime, I also do continue to be comforted by the experience of the “bells that can ring” as the creation-connectedness even of regular worship comes to light: the treasures of our faith, hidden in plain sight.
Is it enough to draw attention, rather than waiting on transformation?
The vitriol of Amos 5 is nonetheless lurking in the wings. How dearly we always hoped that referred to someone else, conveniently distant in time and space.
This is a blog, not a sermon. It is an exploration of thoughts. Sermons have to be pastoral. And not only my various audiences, but I myself need God’s help with stomaching the bitter pills cascading down our throats ..of scientific findings and news of real events and damage that won’t be undone.
Am I realising that to describe myself too, in all this, as a ‘sinner’, or in Brecht’s terms ‘a criminal’ is not to be condemned , but to be blessed to claim a starting point for hope? The obsession with tidiness and perfection strangles more than it encourages.
This, then, is truly raising the bar: To do the little I can do, and offer the rest to God.
For now the daily and weekly devotions of Christian communities, like conversations about trees, do comfort and sustain. That must not be diminished. The indefinable goodness that sometimes indwells becomes daily more valuable. It can be more so.
Though I heard of a Christian leader of a local congregation who demanded that worship should be kept free of “all that tree-hugging nonsense “. “Which Bible“, as Desmond Tutu used to say, more or less, “is he reading?”. How I would love to be incredulous at that report.
The ecological conversion of the spirituality and liturgy of the churches, let alone their institutional frameworks, takes time that we do not have. But that need not disable us. No matter: the Spirit prays where we are incompetent, Christ is with us, when our footsteps falter.
So we give thanks for any and every step nonetheless. Every spark of hope.
Even our own small encouragements, actions, and conversations.
Help us not to under-value the small things God can use.
And allow that God’s people will find the reward of joy and even laughter on the way.
For meaning, and relevance of the quest for Good News and the Kindom of God,
is calling our bluff, right here in front of us.
God, help us sing, and give us hope.
Even on days where Christ himself seems the only reason remaining.
And may we always,
when we turn to you,
speak of trees.