Facing grief, finding joy | January 26

Texts: Matthew 4:1-11; 5:13-14

Speaker: Amy Huser: Sustainability and Outdoor Education Director at Camp Friedenswald

About a year or so ago I was sitting in the Electric Brew, a coffee shop in Goshen, with Doug Kaufman, the Director of Pastoral Ecology for the Mennonite organization – Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions – talking about climate change – and he brought up the topic of lament as it relates to our work in this area,  “It is very important to lament what is happening to the earth, and lament is a place that the church and pastors can really provide support for people – they know how to handle grief.”  I paused, and then replied, “Pastors are really into lament, aren’t they?  I’d rather talk about hope and action.”  Luckily Doug didn’t get up and leave in offence at my almost impolite comment, although he may have wondered if I am a true Mennonite – speaking in such a blunt manner!

The truth is – at that point I’d developed a pretty strong aversion to the words lament and grief. 

This was partially due to a pretty intense season of grief I went through a number of years before – around 2014 – grief over the lack of will or action in our social and political institutions to solve climate change – and along with that, the full realization that individual lifestyle changes could not come close to creating the conditions necessary for a sustainable world.  We needed a complete transformation of our social and economic systems at a global scale.  This realization hit me hard. 

Mennonites (along with lots of other folks) like to work hard to make the world a better place.  We highly value our sense of agency.  One of the major faults of the sustainability movement is the tendency to start thinking, as one continuously works to reduce ones’ carbon footprint – that, “the world would be better off if I didn’t exist – and even better – if humans didn’t exist.” 

Those thoughts were nagging at me as I worked through my grief over the climate crisis.  I completely lost my sense of agency for a time.  But I came out of that period absolutely determined not to let my grief get the better of me again.  I accepted the reality that we are headed for some difficult changes, processed my emotions, and even wrote down my philosophy on my approach to life – which is to live my life with love and joy, celebrating the beauty that exists, and working to change the broken systems I am a part of in the ways that I can.

Looking back, I had grief confused a bit with despair and defeat.  A significant part of my aversion to grief came from equating it to the feelings of despair that I was experiencing. 

What can one do but grieve when faced with terrible news? Anyone who is wishing for and working for social and environmental change, which I’m sure, is everyone in this room, faces grief over and over again.  A post on social media recently that hit me hard was this  – How old do you have to be to have experienced the 6 hottest years on the planet?  6.  My daughter is six – the climate she inhabits today is already different from the one I had as a child.

And Doug is right – one does need to lament – but my question is – does despair and defeat necessarily have to come along for the ride?

I imagine that when Jesus was being tempted in the desert, after 40 days and 40 nights alone with no food, he would have been struggling with feelings of despair and defeat.  Yet when temptation came, prodding him to disrupt right relationships in order to fulfill his own desires, he resisted.

How can we, in our grief, tap into our inner strength, realize our ability to create change, and even perhaps allow ourselves to experience JOY?

I’ve developed a bit of a recipe to fight off the despair that so easily comes with the grief of working in the climate movement, and I hope is applicable for facing the grief that accompanies any environmental or social ill.  And Doug is right again – the church is well positioned to help mix up this recipe.  Here are the ingredients: Community, spirituality, action, and joy.

On community:
What happened as soon as Jesus resisted the temptations in the desert?  He was surrounded by a divine community of angels – they came immediately to support and help him. 
Vox writer, David Roberts, talked about the need for community in the climate movement – even using the churchy word, fellowship.  He wrote, “…the feeling people are groping for is fellowship. People can face even overwhelming odds with good spirits if they feel part of a community dedicated to a common purpose.”

In our church communities we say our common purpose is to increase peace and justice in our world and help the reign of God be realized here today.  That is a powerful purpose with a beautiful vision for a world of right relationships.

This sense of community and belonging lifts us up and helps us to see the way our individual actions can easily turn into collective ones when we share our ideas and visions with each other. I deeply appreciate the way the community at Camp Friedenswald provides this to me and many others.  This brings us to the second ingredient to fight despair – actions.

 On Action:
As soon as Jesus was renewed by the divine community of angels, he headed back and began preaching.  Action immediately followed renewal from community.  And then – after he preached for a bit, the very next story tells us he gathered his disciples.  Yes, the disciples needed to be taught how to be followers of the way – but they also provided an essential ingredient to Jesus’s work – a tight knit community with a shared common purpose to work alongside him in his endeavors.  A person acting in isolation for social and environmental change is practically an oxymoron, and is almost certainly doomed to despair, defeat, and burn out. 

Yet when we understand that we are part of larger systems, and our individual actions for social and ecological change, whatever they may be, support a shift in the mental models we use to understand the world around us – we see the way those actions help create the cultural shift needed to spur our institutions to change.  Individual actions done in community with others grow social movements.  Social movements create transformed societies.

At the same time, thinking about ALL the actions we could possibly take to be earth-friendly can be overwhelming.  A friend recently asked me what my opinion was on prioritizing her own actions for sustainability – my answer?  Advocacy. Get involved with political institutions and organizations to advocate for sustainable change on larger scales than you can take as an individual.  Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe simply asks people to talk about climate change with friends and neighbors as a form of advocacy.  Those conversations are starting points – breaking the silence and soft denial of inaction.

Another piece of advice I have is to take actions that make sense for you – actions that are life giving.  Give yourself grace – the movement doesn’t need purity – we need spirit and engagement – not judgment!  I resonate with Mary Reglar, who wrote an article titled, “I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle.”  Her subtitle explains her meaning -”Stop obsessing over your environmental “sins. Fight the oil and gas industry instead.”  What that fight or advocacy looks like for you is really up to you. We need everyone in the movement – you don’t have to live a perfect “green” lifestyle – no one does!  You just need to have the desire to work in some way for a livable planet. 

On spirituality:
Environmental writer, Cara Buckley, came away from a workshop on handling climate grief with this prescription, she writes – “Live like the crisis is urgent. Embrace the pain, but don’t stop there. Seek out a spiritual path to forge gratitude, compassion and acceptance, because operating out of denial, anger or fear only hurts us in the end.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/15/sunday-review/depression-climate-change.html

When we feel connected to a divine presence, it empowers us to transform our grief into powerful acts for goodness in the world.  Buckley quoted one workshop leader who said, “There’s nothing more powerful than a broken heart, as long as you have a spiritual container to hold it.”

Finding spiritual practices that feed my soul is an important piece of the puzzle for me in fighting despair.  It is also a piece that I can easily neglect.  We had a very different fall this year at Camp – the mosquito borne virus EEE (Eastern Equine Encephalitis), which can result in death, while still rare, was present in higher numbers in our area than normal.   Because of this, the majority of schools scheduled for outdoor education in the fall at Camp decided not to come.  While I feel quite selfish admitting it – this occurrence of higher levels of EEE in our area caused me to grieve deeply – more than the many stories I’d heard about climate change causing calamities across the world. The higher occurrence of EEE isn’t even directly connected to climate change – at least not yet.  Apparently there has traditionally been a cycle of more EEE cases every 10-20 years in Michigan.  But all the same, while wildfires and floods have wreaked havoc in other places, EEE was having a direct effect on my work, my parenting, and my relationship with nature.  I wanted to crawl under the covers and not come out until it was all over.  My go to spiritual practice of finding God in nature was turned upside down too – nature became a place I wasn’t sure I wanted to be until I could internalize this new reality.  For the first time since 2014 I was having trouble getting stuck in despair.  I needed to grieve – and then I needed to find my way out of it.  Spiritual practices helped, my community (especially at Camp) helped, actions helped – but I also needed to find joy.

Finding joy:
After we see Jesus resist temptation, find community, and take action, he tells his followers, “You are the light of the world”.  I don’t know if you feel this way – but I feel like my light shines much brighter when it is infused with a certain amount of joy.

Wendell Berry advises, “Be joyful/though you have considered all the facts.”  Is this a fake joy that simply turns a blind eye to a crisis for stolen moments here and there so that we can pretend to be happy?  I don’t think so. 

Environmental leader, Paul Hawken, is adamant that we should be grateful for climate change.  He says it is the earth’s way of communicating to us the need to change our human relationship to the rest of creation.  The earth is urging us to craft a beautiful vision of what it means to be in right relationship with creation, and we just need to listen.  To me, that is a joyful thought and joyful work. 
Varshini Prakash is one of the leaders of the Sunrise Movement – a group that plays a leading role in the powerful youth climate movement that has emerged in the last couple of years.  She says, “We want to bring joy in the process of changing the world. It’s actually one of our principles.” She goes on to say, “Ruthlessly defending your rights to have joy and happiness in this moment is essential to [changing the world].”

Joy and happiness are essential and must be ruthlessly defended?  Is that true for you?  It is for me.  Without joy, creativity essential to envisioning a world of right relationships will be severely depleted.  The vision requires joy.

How does one defend joy?  To me, defending joy is allowing myself the freedom to feel joy in the midst of a broken planet.  You have the right to feel joy in the beauty that exists all around you – the joy in a child’s smile, a fantastic sunrise, in music and art, in laughter with friends.  You have the right to feel joy for technological innovations that will help bring about the necessary changes. Feel joy for shifting worldviews that value simplicity and community over materialism and individuality.  Feel joy for the development of a beautiful vision of right relationships with all of creation – and the ways the vision is already emerging among us.

We can defend our right to joy – but it also grows naturally in places that nourish us – places like Camp Friedenswald and Columbus Mennonite.  The joy at Camp and here in your congregation grows deeper with our connections to each other.  They are both places that provide the ingredients of community, action, spirituality, and joy needed to mix up a recipe to help us face our grief, fight off despair, and change the world.