Pantomime of Procrastination

August 16, 2015

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

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Four questions today. What is a pantomime? What is procrastination? What is life? What is death? The ancient text remands us, choose life not death. The modern text plays with us: is it better to go slow or to go fast? All four of these questions lead to the matter of deadlines. Will you ever finish that dissertation? Will you ever finish this life? Will the environmental movement succeed without deadlines? And what if it will only succeed without deadlines and only with life lines?


I promise not to answer any of these questions but I will probe them. I will begin with the story of the UCC Synod, during which about forty of us from twenty states had endless conference phone calls starting over a year ago about how to put more oomph in the UCC engine about climate change. We had passed an anti-fracking resolution the year before, which resolution succeeded in about 20 conferences. Ours even had the slightest impact on New York State, even though I would prefer to tell you that it had an impact worthy of the previous years 1018 conference phone calls and meetings and word smithing, etc. I would love to tell you that Governor Cuomo banned fracking in New York State because he heard that our 170 churches or so had written a resolution a passed it overwhelmingly. That impact did not happen – and frakcing was also banned. In the 2013 resolution about fracking, the big question was when we should insist that fracking be banned. Yesterday was of course the answer. In ten years became the moderate’s position. Immediately became the word that was smithed.

The story of the Open and Affirming Movement in the UCC is my guide here. Many just wanted to declare themselves same. Those who actually did the study and did the internal work of changing harts and minds not only declared themselves same. They fought.

In the 2015 resolution, which took all those hours in 2014 to write, the issue was when we said 2080. Why? We thought it would take three generations to achieve. We thought it was stupid to ask people to do something that couldn’t be done. We wanted to honor the democratic process. We heard the engineers and the politicians on our calls say freedom from fossil fuels was utopian until highways were turned into bikeways or solar had achieved its capacity. Anyway, we got the resolution to Synod and spent two days in hearings with 500 people in the room. We had packets. We had slogans. We had buttons. We had late night strategy and re strategy sessions. Ringing in our ears was the warning that people like Mayor Bloomberg (don’t sneer) and had issued. They said the worst thing that could happen in Paris, when a serious deadline with some teeth, will be decided in December, is that the conference would pass nothing, or pass something so “radical” that the failure of the Kyoto deadlines would look picayune. Those deadlines were too utopian and everybody knew the second they were out that none of the big players was going to attend them, and they did not.

What happened at Synod was more than a little Holy Spiritish. The Synod, which we thought would not even pass 2080, changed the language – in a floor debate that lasted over two hours – to 2020. Yup. 2020. That we should be free of fossil fuels by 2020.

Imagine our amusement. Here we thought – and by the way we is mostly people from fracking states like Pennsylvania and Ohio and Florida – that we were the most radical kids in town, only to be amended by those even less involved in the environmental cognoscenti. You figure.

President Obama has said more than one important thing about environmental deadlines. He has said, “This is the first generation to live with the trouble, already here, as in Miami Beach being underwater, already, in a good storm, and the last generation that can do anything about it.” Of course that means it is time for some oomph. Some seriousness. Some genuine fear of God.

Perhaps you have known this moment yourself. If I don’t finish the dissertation this year, I can tell I won’t finish it. If I don’t meet the deadline about my weight, or my addiction, or my I can tell it won’t happen. I have to make a deadline and keep it.

What is a pantomime of procrastination? It is when you talk to yourself and others every week about doing something important, like making a decision to stay or go, exhale or get off the pot, plant the garden or not plant the garden, clean out the closet or not clean out the closet, you know you are just kidding. You’re not really walking the talk, you are talking the walk. You are whispering. You are kidding. You are giving yourself a pep talk, not acting. What is the best way to start something? Start it. Don’t talk about starting it. Start it.

President Obama has now joined the Synod’s intensity by saying 2030 is a good time to have something really good done. Candidate Clinton has three upped him, adding 2017. I don’t know about you but I find all of this absolutely fascinating and absolutely boring at the same time.

The big thing that happened with the Kyoto projections was that we reached too far, too soon, before a consensus and intensity was built. The other big thing that happened with Kyoto is the more fascinating thing. The earth itself changed while we were trying to change it. Things both got much worse and deteriorated more rapidly, and got much better and deteriorated more slowly. Also solar actually advanced much more rapidly than anyone thought it would. In other words, every deadline or model for action, or removal of the pantomime of procrastination and entry into the world of planned action, the kind that turns one highway a year into one bikeway a year, (I’d start with 10th avenue, but that is another question entirely) has to deal with moving parts, as opposed to starting in the year you started and ending with the year of your imagination. Plans need to change and be revised just about every second, based on new information and the new information that comes literally from the living organism, the earth.

So why does this matter to you, if it does matter to you at all? Surely climate change matters to you. It will knock on your own door, if it hasn’t already. You have citizenship obligations to consider, as well as those of your faith. You have some sense that the Pope is right when he says the first people to be hurt will be those already hurting – and you have some sense, even if it that infamous pantomime, that you would do something about it if you could do something about it, when you do get around to it, if you get around to it.

So let me give you a few hints about moving from death to life by ceasing the pantomime of procrastination. I am not going to tell you to hurry up and put more shoulder to the grindstone. Or to try harder. Or to spend more time on conference phone calls or political action. All of those things matter and they are life and death matters, for you and for others. But we have to go deeper here, if we are to genuinely choose the life that we are offered. We have to go slow enough to involve multiple people in multiple parts. We have to be careful not to let things get so bad that some authoritarian something is all that can help us. We have to develop multiple centers of power, understanding that fossil fuels were all about centralizing centers of power and getting us all to serve them fast. We need to go as slow as evolution and as fast as we did in the Second World War, both, not either.

We have to find our hope. Then we have to find our minds. Then we have to harness our minds and our hope to our hearts. Then we might be ready for 2027, 2030, and 2080. They are all going to come – and I guarantee our they will come in a different frame than any we now have.

We just got back from Star Island, where Warren did the program and I did the chapel services, preaching every morning at 10. While Warren was doing white racism with all white folk – even though Erich Jackson came out one day and said he’d really never seen white folk agonize about their own racism, which I thought was a real blessing of a thing to say – I was preaching about Stars and conjurers and magicians. My theme was how to develop a positive picture of the future, one so strong that we refused to accept anything catastrophic or live in our own insipid catastrophism. I even called the Pope a bit of a catastrophist and the environmental movement catastrophizing. Until we develop a positive picture of a future, we will basically be imitating the Religious Right in our spiritual muscles. “You went to the grocery store and used a plastic bag?” Shame on you. “You didn’t turnout the lights?” Double shame. The Religious Right has successfully used shame and blame to develop political power, short – term. They have no long term picture except for one in which the righteous, as in themselves, stay in power and keep the sinners, the rest of us, in our corsets. Plus they love centralized authority. Watch out.

The religious left and the religious right link arms in catastrophism, which is finally a lack of trust in each other and us. We messed everything up this long and this far, why would anyone imagine we would do anything different now?

Simultaneous to our typical UCC conference on Star Island was meeting a group called IRAS, a bunch of Unitarian academics, a society of scientists and religionists. who made a lot of fun of themselves. They had their own program and we worshipped together, when not discussing the jokes they told about themselves. Not too much Jesus, please. Why aren’t Unitarians good hymn singers? Because they are always looking ahead to the third stanza to find out what they disagree with in that verse.

Catherine Keller gave a paper on the “Cloud of the Impossible.” Whitney Bauman gave an outstanding paper on A Queer Theology of Science. I learned three things that are important to this sermon, which some of you have already figured out is based on the fable of the tortoise and the hare.

The premise of this paper is that transformative knowledge comes about through unknowing. In her recent book, Catherine Keller traces the “Cloud of the Impossible” in the Medieval Theologian Nicholas of Cusa and makes connections between Cusa, Bruno, Quantum Physics and even deconstructive philosophies. In order to create spaces in which new ideas might emerge, these thinkers and concepts help us to take stock of the more problematic aspects of claims of certainty. Similarly, Karen Barad blurs the boundary between the proposed great divide between ontology and epistemology through her engagement with the differences between Bohr and Heisenberg. Finally, Jack Halberstam traces a type of unknowing in The Queer Art of Failure. Halberstam notes that if the current model of “production” is leading us toward eco-social destruction and planetary catastrophe, then perhaps the best thing we can do is to cultivate failure. In these three models we find a method for a different way of understanding epistemology that might be called experimental worlding.” From Whitney’s introduction



No Binaries, not even hope and despair.


Why? Because life is participation and if we let only one power, pope, president, UCC Synod, or as Donald Trump would say "wherever", take the credit for the success of the environmental movement, which success we all want to look back on and say we were part of, the earth will not be saved. It will just repeat its greed and gore.

I went to see the Freda Kahlo exhibit at the Bronx Botanical Gardens. I wandered much of the grounds and found the early morning visit just the right time to go. A young woman had a lace tablecloth spread out in front of her. She had tweezers in her hands and was teasing the dried poppy seeds out of the poppies that had done their blooming.

Before her set table were many different colors of poppies still blooming, so she had the best of both worlds. Youth and age, ripened and spent, colorful and browned, all spread in front of her. I chatted her up. “What are you doing, it looks so all-consuming?” She said, “I am saving the earth, teasing out the next generation of flowers with my tweezers. I am also saving myself from saving the earth. I volunteer here on Monday mornings, and work on my non-chalance quotient for the week.” I wondered what she usually does. She said “I work on Wall Street.”

She had tiny seed bags as part of her technology as well, the wax paper kind that must have been custom ordered for the next generation of poppies. They were marked with M for magenta, 0 for orange, P for pink and 00-0 for off orange, and 00-P for off pink. There were some other pastels in the process. I would have called them peach or lilac but I didn’t want to get too involved in her process.

I left her little scene – or was it a pastiche – strangely warmed. As if I had seen the future and been calmed by those who are creating it. She had the timing I covet as we wander from deadline to deadline and lifeline to lifeline. Slow and careful. Careful and slow. Participating in the future and learning to trust it.

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