Sustaining Action, Sustaining Hope

Continuing with our theme of "Sanctuary," this Sunday we consider how we care for our ultimate "sanctuary." How can we sustain ourselves and one another in responding to the call to care for our common home, Earth? Rev. Alison Cornish, Executive Director of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light and a Unitarian Universalist minister, offers some pragmatic ways we can "keep on keeping on."

Sermon: "Sustaining Action, Sustaining Hope"; Rev. Alison Cornish

Most of you have been around long enough to hear a LOT of sermons. And so you know the usual format/drill.  Just about every sermon has something of an ‘arc’ to it – there’s an exploration of a topic, or issue; then there’s the naming of where something has gone amiss, or astray; and – usually somewhere about the 2/3 mark, there’s a turning – towards hope. No matter the subject, no matter how deeply problematic things are, sermons end on a note of hope. No one wants to head out of a sanctuary feeling more leaden than they walked in. People don’t come back to a congregation where the last word is not hopeful.

This morning, I’m offering a slightly different take on the standard sermon format. I’m going to make this huge assumption – that you know the situation ‘out there’ isn’t great right now – and particularly when it comes to the issue I’m here to speak about – climate change.  I’m going to guess I don’t need to go into detail about the current administration’s efforts to undo commitments to the Paris Climate Accord, or gut the protections encoded at the Environmental Protection Agency (note the key word there – protection), or the dire news just released in a report by the scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) – or, the comments by other scientists who say the IPCC didn’t go far enough.  You have seen the pictures of Panama City, Florida and Wilmington, North Carolina, and know the damage wrought by Hurricanes Florence and Michael, their power intensified by our changing climate. I know you all carry this news, these stories, and images, with you into this sanctuary – I need not describe them again.

Instead, I want to focus on a few stories of where I see signs of hope, and on ways of sustaining hope in the face of what comes our way, each day, every day, as a steady barrage of negative, alarming and destabilizing news. Let’s look – together – for glimpses of something growing, thriving, pushing, in spite of the reality – like the miracle of a thin shoot of green grass pushing through a crack of a concrete sidewalk.  And how we might – in fact, must – nurture hope inside each of us.  I want to offer you an enormous dose of hope because of another truth about sermons – ministers preach what we most need to hear ourselves – and boy, do I need a heaping spoonful of hopefulness!

I also want to introduce to you a couple of ‘conversation partners’ for this morning – people whose work I draw on, who have been inspiring to me – Joanna Macy, whose root tradition is Buddhism, and who is the co-author of Active Hope: How to cope with the mess we’re in without going crazy; and Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. While different in many ways, both authors agree on this point: hope is not something external to be searched for, or found; to get, or to hold on to.  Hope is something we do, rather than have. Hope is a verb, not a noun. It is active, not passive.  It is internal, not ‘out there.’ Both Macy and Solnit agree on these attributes of hope, and they also agree on this: authentic hope always emerges from a full recognition of reality.  Hope is not blind to circumstances – in fact, hope is generated by a full immersion in reality.  I like the simple, straightforward way Joanna Macy speaks about what she calls ‘Active Hope’

  1. Active Hope takes a clear view of reality
  2. Active Hope requires something from us – a vision – a direction we want to move in, the values we’d like to see embraced
  3. And then, Active Hope becomes the steps we take to move forward

Those steps – Activated Hope, if you will – lead us to another characteristic of hope:  hope is not about outcomes, it’s about desire.  If we need an assurance of a particular outcome we have in mind – if we require that kind of hope before we commit ourselves to an action, our ability and willingness to act is likely to get blocked as we weigh the chances – and come out wanting. Macy writes, ‘Active hope is about becoming active participants in bringing about what we hope for – while there is no guarantee we will succeed in bringing about what we hope for, the process of giving our full attention and effort draws out our aliveness.’

Two examples of this are going on right now.  The Adorers of the Blood of Christ is a community of women religious (nuns) who have farmland in Lancaster County.  A portion of their land has been seized through eminent domain by a pipeline company in order to construct an LNG pipeline.  The sisters, who are dedicated to honor the sacredness of all creation by their Land Ethic document adopted in 2005, built an outdoor chapel to both inhibit construction of the pipeline, and to symbolically mark what the land means to them.  The sisters have lost repeatedly in court, and last Friday, filed their latest appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.  They are also investigating the possibility of constructing a community solar farm on their property, immediately adjacent to the pipeline.

In another case, Juliana v. the U.S., 21 children and youth have sued the government, claiming that through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.  These children are climate warriors, seeking to apply the underlying principles of the Constitution to new circumstances unforeseen by the framers.  Their case was meant to go to trial in Eugene, Oregon on Monday, October 29th, but late on Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay – the parties are due to respond this week.

Both of these groups – the sisters and the youth - have yet to see … and may never see … the outcomes they seek.  Their days in court may not result in a win.  That’s not stopping them, and risks overlooking the extraordinary commitment of the plaintiffs; the attention of thousands to the cases; the ‘collateral good’ that is emerging side-by-side with the cases.  Narrowing the definition of the outcome to that which we wish for easily blinds us to all the good that is there.

We don’t know what will happen – this is vital when we are dealing with hope.  Virginia Woolf wrote ‘the future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.’ Dark here means inscrutable, unknown – or – in the words of Rebecca Solnit, ‘the spaciousness of uncertainty.’ As a species, we are generally uncomfortable with uncertainty – it tends to make us more anxious than excited.  So it’s interesting to note, for ourselves, as individuals – and for our society, too – how we fill in the ‘blank of the unknown future’ – is it a place where our worse fears will surely be realized? A future of certain doom and gloom? Change is inevitable – and with change comes a degree of uncertainty and instability – but these very conditions can offer fertile ground for hope, should we choose to respond in that way. As Solnit writes, ‘hope is not about what we expect. It is an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world, of the breaks with the present, the surprises.’

In thinking of surprised, two approaches – opposite in many ways – of dealing with fossil fuels – come to mind: shareholder activism and divestment.  A Dutch investment group who holds 20 M euros worth of shares of Shell Oil – making them the most influential shareholder – filed a shareholder resolution to have the company commit to limits of the Paris Climate Accord.  It didn’t pass – but it did get 6% of the votes of those present – enough for the company to pay attention and to respond.

On the other hand, the fastest growing divestment movement in history is from fossil fuels.  By December of 2016, 688 institutions and 58,000 individuals – representing $5.5 B in assets, had announced they had divested their investment portfolios from fossil fuels.

There are arguments for and against both of these strategies, and activists can tear themselves up trying to convince the other they are ‘wrong.’ But we are in uncharted waters, and no economist worth their salt would say the variables are known, or knowable, to be able to predict which is more successful. 

What’s the harm in both strategies moving forward simultaneously? 

Unitarian Universalists are realists, which can cause a certain amount of skepticism in things unseen; like faith, and yes, hope as well.  If Unitarian Universalism were a state, we would be Missouri, the ‘show me’ state. I appreciate the ‘let’s be real’ sentiment.  And yet, when it comes to hope, this attitude can easily morph into ‘show me where this going – and then I’ll decide if I’ll come along, too.’ Which is another way to squelch hope – the need to have the assurance of a pre-determined version of the future. But think of all the surprises – both wonderful and challenging – we UUs could not have predicted or choreographed, but were instead products of imagination and active hope. Just one example – what if … we welcome LGBTQ people – just the way then are? And then, what if we ordain LGBTQ people as our clergy? And, what if those clergy performed marriages of same gender couples, as if it were normative, an everyday occurrence? Could our dreams of equality become the law of the land? Hope answers to ‘what if?’ not to ‘show me, prove it.’

In this spirit, I have so enjoyed a new ambitious, even audacious, book and website, Drawdown ‘the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming …’ The information is terrific at identifying what’s already at work, happening – and the power it contains – and not just in the energy and transportation sectors, but education for women and girls, food, land use …

Paul Hawkin, the editor, writes

What stands before us … is not the choosing of sides but the gift of seeing who we are as stewards of the planet.  We will either come together to address global warming or we will likely disappear as a civilization.  To come together we must know our place, not in a hierarchal sense,

but in a biological and cultural sense, and reclaim our role as agents of our continued existence… the defense of the world can be accomplished only by unifying, listening, and working side by side.

In other words, we need to reinvent ourselves.

None other than the esteemed Worldwatch Institute wrote in one of its annual State of the World reports ‘… the biggest obstacle to reinventing ourselves may be simply a kind of paralysis of hope.’  Let me repeat:  ‘… the biggest obstacle to reinventing ourselves may be simply a kind of paralysis of hope.’ 

A paralysis of hope.  I actually find that statement to be – incredibly hopeful! Because it’s something I, and you, and every person can actually do something about – especially the kind of hope we’ve explored this morning.  Hope that is born of a clear view of reality. Hope that is invested in the great unknown – and unknowable. 

In fact, I see very little choice in the matter, because hope cannot come from hopelessness, nor does it come from outside of ourselves.  Vaclav Havel wrote: ‘The kind of hope I often think about … [is] a state of mind, not a state of the world.’

Hope must be created, and recreated – imagined, and re-imagined – in a continuous, never-ending process.  And it is a task everyone can – and must – do. Either we have hope within us or we don’t.

It is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world, or estimate of the situation … it is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.

Congregations involved with Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light know that when they lower their own carbon footprint by insulating and weather stripping their buildings, or lower the planet’s release of methane by hosting a meatless potluck, or help neighbors lower their energy use and emissions by giving them LED lightbulbs, or bless a new compost pile, or knock on the doors of their state rep, or write a letter to the editor – they are working on climate change – and, they are also sustaining hope – for themselves, and for their communities. When it comes to climate change, the effect of thousands of individual and collective actions is an unknown – we don’t know when, or even if, there’s a positive tipping point.  But we do know the effect of collective hope – an active hope that brings out our full aliveness, draws on our values and imaginations, and brings us together to act in solidarity and love.

It was our Unitarian ancestor the Reverend Theodore Parker who said ‘I do not pretend to understand the moral universe: the arc is a long one … from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.’ The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often used this quote, as did President Barack Obama – but he added to it:  “ … but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own way put our hand on that arc, and we bend it in the direction of justice…’ May our contributions to that arc be as much about keeping hope alive as any other steps we can take to bring about a more just, loving, and sustainable world for us all.