The Pentecost story is supercharged with rushing wind, tongues of flames, ecstatic speaking in many languages as a mass phenomenon. Pentecost is described like a mass rally, charged with energy, a great outburst. It’s the Pride March on Holy Spirit steroids. Its tempting to preach this story, especially in this time of rallies, in a small city where we have weekly rallies for something. But the lectionary text of Paul’s epistle to the Romans compels me. I live more of my life outside the supercharged environment, in that space where I experience a groaning, hoping, not knowing, needing help to pray and a spirit that will be with me when the words don’t come. My morning news reading is full of the groanings, of all creation, waiting and hoping for a redemption, a hope that I do not see in the moment, but I won’t let it go.
These thoughts started forming on the day after May Day, which felt like the first real day of Spring. I could not sleep after 4 AM, so I was up very early, so with Jeanne visiting her parents in Virginia, I decided to get the leaves out of the front garden.
Living on the Southwest corner of Hospital Hill, makes us the primary collection point for leaves that blow up the hillsides from the woods at the Dog Park. The labors of Sisyphus were no more burden than keeping leaves from the flower beds. Our next door neighbor has embraced this labor as her meaning in life, but I am less inspired. There are occasionally complains about “our leaves” coming over into their yard, and it would probably do no good to point out that we have no leaf bearing trees on our property. A good Northampton answer might be the leaves are the universe’s leaves and we are but temporary holders of their wonders in the great cycle of life. Or perhaps, as Huck Finn, we should just put up a lawn sign that says “Free leaves for composting.” While I have enough self-differentiation to not participate in Greek tragedies such as Sisyphus, I did decide that 30 minutes of leaf raking would be OK.
Raking leaves away from the tiny green shoots, and uncovering the earth so sunbeams can do their work is quite satisfying. Earth can breath again, so I can breath easier too. It reminds me of a coaching exercise I have done. Its simple. Make a list of the things you unnecessarily tolerate. These things we just overlook and don’t see anymore, the pile of mail growing on the counter, the two pickles floating in the jar in the back of the frig, the soot on the edges of the grill, the papers I haven’t filed in my office which are now 90 percent irrelevant, but it is untouched due to the imagined content of the other 10 percent. Better the pile than the reality of bills or reminders of things I would rather not do. These are the tolerations. I can easily list about 50 things like this. Taking one week to cross off a huge chunk can be very freeing.
This exercise reveals what lies underneath, true priorities and life energy clogged by dead and dried post-it notes. They were pretty and neon in the Fall, but now there are crackling at the edges. The exercise reveals a life too cluttered. The pile in the corner is really the embodiment of the failure embrace my goals. It reveals my tendency toward avoidance. It may start with the pile on the desk, but as I go deeper, other things are revealed. Avoiding difficult conversations that need to happen, habits that I know need to change but I haven’t gotten around to it yet, avoiding the important work that would make a real difference. I am reminded that one of the seven deadly sins is sloth. Sloth is not really laziness. I work hard, and sometimes I work hard so I can avoid what really needs to be done. Sloth isn’t sitting on the couch, it is the failure to embrace the real work.
Facing these tolerations, which may not seem consequential at first, are the groanings in my soul, the beginning of birth pains towards something new. Ugh, this isn’t what I want to do right now, but it is exactly what I need to do right now to get to what I truly want and need. Change takes place if I start to take some action on my inward groanings and embrace them. Just like the garden is smothered by the leaves, green shoots of hope are revealed as the decay is gently removed.
This moves beyond personal applications to bigger issues as well. I was reading Jim Antal’s book “Climate Church, Climate World” and he tries to get at the heart of why we lack urgency and stay in denial about the devastating effects of climate change.
“The bottom line is we do not accept climate change because we wish to avoid the anxiety it generates and the deep changes it requires. Thus, denial is a form of self-defense.”
Rather than face fear or disruption, we seek information that tells us everything is OK. Just as I would rather have the pile in the corner that might contain a problem, than to dig in and have to deal with it. Paul was not thinking about climate change when he wrote the letter to the Romans, but it sounds relevant:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait….
At Bible study group last Monday we dug deeper into Paul’s reasoning here in Romans 8. Paul is writing commentary on Genesis 3 and the fall of Adam and Eve. The failure in Eden is still relevant to our psychological and social problems. In the beginning, we were given a vocation of “stewardship.” This is a more accurate translation than “dominion” over the earth. We are called to be caretakers, stewards, gardeners. The temptation of the fruit of the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” is to be like God. Then we claim power, we will decide what is good and evil on our terms. But we overreach. We are not God, we forget our limitations, and arrogantly end up acting in harmful ways. Genesis says because of our over-reach, our sin, the Fall – we are then subject to struggle and futility – women will have pain in child birth, men will labor to bring forth fruit from the ground. (Notice over time, women became the farmers too, so it is doubly unfair.)
Paul is saying that creation also has had to bear the consequences of our arrogant over-reach. The earth is groaning and hoping and working towards humanity getting its act together, being redeemed and living more in harmony with creation. If we truly want to live in harmony deal with climate change, we have to face every kind of human failure – greed (because there are still $10 Trillion worth of fossil fuels in the ground, and who wants to give up getting rich.) Our problems of inequality, the ease of a consumer society powered by oil, lots of blue collar job loss in oil and coal country, an education system that is not ready to train people for the modern workforce, and infrastructure tilted towards carbon burning vehicles. No wonder we don’t want to touch that pile of stuff in the corner.
Avoidance has consequences, both scientific and theological. The scientific consequences clear, more carbon, more heat, more disruption, rising sea levels, intense storms, etc. But what about the theological consequences?
We are alienated from our true vocation-stewards of creation, which involves the earth and our relations to the other 7 Billion people on the planet.
Here is the good news. If we are willing to face our groanings, the Spirit of God is right there groaning with us. We don’t always know what to do or even what to pray, but the spirit of God intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. God searches our hearts, is deeply present in us and in all of creation.
I’m going to end where Paul goes in the end of chapter 8. He asks, with all that is wrong for the consequences of our sins, are we stuck in futility? Are we just sheep to be slaughtered, or rolling the stone up the hill every day like Sisyphus, raking our leaves? In the passage most often read at funerals he writes,
7 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And it starts with our tolerations, our groanings, as we must first conquer ourselves.