Grief and a Changing Climate

Readings: Acts 2.14a,36–41, Luke 24.13–35

 

When I was on my ordination retreat back in 2015,

the week I was to be made a deacon,

I had a grace-filled experience of deep grief.

The place we were staying in was a handsome old house,

set deep in the beautiful Northumbrian countryside.

The weather was fine, and the scenery was stunning.

The only noise for long periods was birdsong and bee-hum.

 

In the quiet and solitude of that place,

my heart eased and opened up to experience the sadness

I had so often intuited lay within me,

but which I had never allowed to surface.

It was not grief for the loss of a beloved person

it was grief for the loss of beloved species and habitats

that I as a member of western civilisation

had contributed to the destruction of.

Grief for all the needless suffering and pain

humans have inflicted on trees, animals, rivers, the sea.

Grief for a changing climate,

and an uncertain future for humanity.

 

I had never before been able to move beyond the anger and bargaining stages of grief.

And I don’t think it’s a linear progression at all.

I’ve been back and forward through the five stages of grief ever since then.

That experience has taught me that grief is not something to fear.

I was not undone by the grief I had once feared to experience.

I was not unhinged and unbalanced and dysfunctional.

I was healed, and then energised by my experience.

Healed in the sense that, having experienced it fully,

I could to some extent move to the next stage in the process.

A greater equanimity, a greater resolve for action.

 

The disciples in the passage from the Acts of the Apostles which we have just heard,

were all in different places, different stages in the process of grief,

coming to terms with the loss of their beloved Lord Jesus,

who held such significance and promise for them and their country’s future.

What did that future look like now,

with him dead in the tomb?

 

They were about to discover that God knows something about the stages of grief.

The Christian tradition has called it the paschal mystery,

and it is very simply, the pattern of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

As Jesus tells his followers on the road to Emmaus,

it was necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory.

Grief, the experience of desolation and despair,

just like the death that Christ suffered,

is not the end, is not to be feared,

but embraced as part of the universal pattern for life.

 

There are many reasons to be experiencing – or avoiding experiencing, grief,

at this time in the life of our globalised world.

Coronavirus has no doubt brought many new levels of pain and suffering to many.

But despite this many are taking the opportunity provided

to slow down and reflect on life,

and reflect on the single greatest existential threat

the human species has ever faced.

Global warming. Climate change.

Or what the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, calls

the sixth mass extinction event in earth’s history.

 

This is a problem bigger than any of us can deal with;

and it is a matter that we are all complicit in bringing about.

And those two factors alone make it impossible for many to come to terms with.

Our brains are not programmed for long term decision making,

and we habitually discount the future cost of our present choices.

We simply put off, day after day, month after month, year after year,

ever looking at the future consequences that are already in the pipeline for us.

My sense, is that we put it off

because of the grief that threatens subconsciously to undo us.

 

But Christians know better.

We know Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and was raised to glory;

and who provides a pattern, a universal pattern,

that we can trust, that we can enter into,

knowing that whatever we fear – be it grief, death or the unknown,

Christ has travelled that path ahead of us,

and will lead us to some greener pasture.

 

Perhaps the church then ought to be taking a lead,

in facing up to the facts as scientists understand them,

and to allow ourselves to consider what could be true,

no matter how that might make us feel.

 

Of course, this is a luxury for most us in the UK.

For the 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal

that become extinct every 24 hours

it is an unavoidable reality.

For those whose homes have been ruined and loved ones lost

through the destructive flooding of recent years,

it is an unavoidable reality.

For the Australians who have seen their country destroyed

by extreme heat and voracious wild fires,

it is an unavoidable reality.

For the millions of Africans experiencing drought and famine,

for the island nations losing their land to rising sea levels,

and for the Inuit struggling to survive while the ice melts,

it is an unavoidable reality,

 

… that since the year 1750 the globe has warmed 1.5 degrees since we started burning coal.

that by the year 2030 there will be no summer artic ice at all,

resulting in devastating rises in sea levels all across the planet,

from which no continent will escape.

That if, or when, all the ice does finally melt,

– which it is due to under current conditions –

it will increase global warming

by half of all that human activity is already directly responsible for.

 

And that despite our faithful recycling habits,

despite there being more electric cars on the road,

despite the 2016 Paris Agreement

global carbon emissions continue to rise.

 

And that even if we stopped the burning of coal today across the whole planet,

future damage has been locked in,

because of the extent to which the oceans have absorbed the extra heat

we’ve been generating over the last couple of hundred years.

 

What’s new about all of this now, I think,

is that for the first time since perhaps the Second World War,

Westerners in the English speaking world

are acknowledging that we are ourselves are now vulnerable.

Its no longer only them over there in the poorer majority world.

Its no longer just abstract species and their habitats that are under threat,

its us, here in the UK,

who are beginning to feel vulnerable to the effects of runaway global heating,

caused at our own hand.

 

You may still be asking yourself why,

why have I laid on the bad news so thick;

why have I repeated a lot of facts that you probably already knew

and still don’t know what to do about.

 

Friends, for me the reason is no longer about avoiding the likely collapse of our society.

I, myself alone, cannot help that.

I have invested my energy for years in being angry about climate change,

in bargaining about electric cars, and solar and wind energy,

and in being depressed and defeated about it.

I am now increasingly in a place of acceptance.

I am now in a long Holy Saturday;

not a place of despair,

but a place of faith, of hope in Christ,

who has gone before me in the way of the cross,

who experienced the devastation of abandonment and betrayal,

injustice, torture and murder,

and who was raised to the glory of the resurrection.

I don’t know the way forward;

I don’t know what the journey will look like for our civilisation,

but I can trust the pattern, I can trust in Christ.

 

And the work that we must all, I think, turn our efforts to,

is primarily spiritual in nature.

Our environmental crisis,

is at heart a spiritual crisis.

It is revealed as the same human violence,

fuelled by greed, hatred, enmity,

that allowed Jesus Christ to be crucified at our hands.

 

The work that reconnects us to God, to ourselves, to Mother Earth,

that will soften and turn our hardened hearts,

is none other than the work of love.

Of carrying our cross of service and care

for the people we are given to,

and the place in which we are set.

 

The climate crisis is an unmanageably large problem,

it carries with it unbearable and devastating realities;

we can attempt to continue with business as usual after the coronavirus pandemic,

by not facing up to the reality which is already beginning to bite,

or we can do what Christians have always done.

 

Put our trust in God,

surrender the illusion of control over our lives,

and enter the way of the cross.

Learning to carry our cross into the unknown territories that await us,

trusting the pattern laid out for us by Christ,

in his life, death, and glorious resurrection.

trusting in the superabundant, effervescent vivacity of God,

which is the ultimate reality,

and which has already had the last word.

 

I reflected during midday prayers on Monday this week,

how envious I was of the early church’s energy,

and clarity of purpose and mission.

And how the Holy Spirit seemed to empower them so readily.

Let us remember that these Christians were being hounded and persecuted

throughout the great expansion of the church we read about in the Acts of the Apostles.

They were liable to be arrested without cause,

abused in public and questioned ruthlessly by the authorities.

They feared for their lives,

and a great many gave their lives, for Christ’s sake,

throughout the early centuries of the church’s life.

 

This darkening period of human history will not be easy,

but it may not be without its consolations,

as we work with clear purpose and energy

to care for those most in need,

to increase the resilience of our communities to the shocks that will continue to hit,

and to attempt to mitigate the ill effects of a warming planet.

 

May we know the joy and energy and clarity of purpose

that the early church did, despite their trials,

as we enter into a deep experience of both grief and repentance.

And as we travel the way of the cross,

on this long Holy Saturday,

bearing our crosses in love for the world,

may we be assured of the ultimate triumph

of the superabundant, effervescent vivacity of God,

which raised Christ from the dead,

and which has had the last word.

 

 

AMEN.