How Can This Be?

December 13, 2015

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

[Note: The audio download is forthcoming.]

In Stuyvesant Park, the roses are blooming in front of the Christmas tree. How can these things be? When I went to sit by the tree and enjoy its lights, I wasn’t prepared for the roses. I began to hum Lo How A Rose Eer blooming but the lyrics morphed to we shall overcome. The leaves are not off the tree in our backyard and by God, they are supposed to be. How can these things be? Not to mention Santicon. How can that thing be?

I suppose I could say that the real question is how can anything be? But I’ll leave that up to God, come back to earth and say that things aren’t going to turn out the way our fear thinks they are. Fear is not a good predictor. It doesn’t participate strongly enough in what it predicts. It allows the awful stuff to happen and even more, creates more awful stuff by its pattern of fearful participation. That’s why Zechariah’s and Mary’s question, “How can these things be?” starts in fear and ends in praise and wonder. We can start in fear as long as we can leave it behind. When we leave it behind, wonder and praise erupt.

Do you remember what cell phones used to cost if used abroad? You were scared to death if your phone was activated once it turned on. Now for ten dollars a day upgrade, you can talk to your dentist, text anyone you want to, and be connected in places where you had long hid away. Do you remember being at first threatened by the World Wide Web and now being willing to be lined to it at all times and in all places? The real question is not how can these things be but how can anything be and who prepares us for which story about the way things are supposed to be. We are in the story preparation business here. We love to tell a good story. And it is a good story we have to tell.

I went to Paris to cover COP21 because of Naomi Klein. She said she had been outsourcing responsibility for climate change to her leaders, that she no longer trusted her leaders and that she had one of those existential experiences that shift us. She needed to do something herself. Everything, as she put it, must change. I appear to be a piece of everything.

The word outsourcing was a word that went straight to my heart. I felt condemned. That’s what I had been doing. Apparently a New Yorker cartoonist had been recording my brain. A man in a bar is introducing himself to a woman. “I am starting a startup that will help other start-ups,” said he. I felt condemned again. I teach a lot. I always think of Judson as a start-up, another way to do and be congregation, a site for experimentation, imagination, risk taking, edge living, sometimes even showing off what it might mean to be church in the 21st century. I could be accused of being a start up.

To call this a vocational crisis would be going too far. The crisis is in the cultural economy. The crisis is on the streets of Baltimore and New York and Chicago and in the low-lying islands of the global south, the sacrifice zones, as Klein puts it so well. The way my privilege works is by starting up to start up to start up. I could probably still get a date in a bar with my elevator speech. But I’d rather change something and stop starting to change something. Plus, as many of you also know, I am slightly I love with the Pope. The Pope is praising the earth and loving the Poor. What else could matter?

I knew I had a few outlets in which to publish. I knew I wanted to be a megaphone for the Pope and get his powerful word out powerfully. Thus, Paris. It was a place to do the max I could in the most strategic way I could. It was a way to get over outsourcing. I became a girl reporter and learned so much about what people who never took a breath to outsource know and are doing. For all the posts, check out I have two more to go, 8 are up.

I’ll tell you what it was like in five connected sentences. Paris still glistens, especially with Christmas lights as extravagant as anything we do here. Paris is still Paris in its energy, even with the stuffed animnals, old shoes and dirty candles still burning at La Place De Republique. the site of the terrorist attack. Paris itself was extraordinarily open to COP21, free subway rides, guides everywhere to help you find yourself. French President Hollande gave extraordinary leadership throughout. Some even speculate that there was a sympathy vote to the French going on because of the attack. People from all over the world were everywhere, so that you thought you were in a special part of the globe, the global part of the globe. And you were. Kairos is the right word. And we were there, glistening, fully lit, globally and energetically discussing APOCALYPSE. Glittering. Global. Engaged. Discussing Aoiocalypse. After terrorism. You couldn’t forget the terrorism because of the extensive security. You couldn’t forget the apocalypse because that was the topic. And you couldn’t forget Paris because who can forget Paris. Paris has a way of saying “I’m here.” Paris is the absolute opposite of a start-up.

Cop21 was a major success. It has done mostly the right thing. It was more than we could have expected, not less than we could have expected. And the Pope’s moral frame prevailed, giving us the same kind of victory that Occupy gave us. Occupy named income inequality as the issue of our time. By the way the Ford Foundation has just changed its entire guidelines to attend only to it. The Pope’s frame and the encyclical really mattered at the conference and to its global leaders. They knew they couldn’t stick to the all climate all the time without talking about the third and fourth worlds at the same time. The Pope’s frame prevailed.
Cop21 may also be too little too late. How can these things be? How can all those people, North and South, work as hard as they can, together, with French food in the evening, and still not have it be enough? Because more has to change. Frankly, everything must change.

Let me name three pockets of change and try not to scare you any more than you already are, ore with the enormity of the task.
The first is an Advent frame. Poor Zechariah was scared when he realized that he was too little and too late to be the father that he had become. He had become habituated to hopelessness and barrenness. He was so habituated that he was struck dumb for the 9 months of the pregnancy for John. The angel who announces the big news strikes him dumb. When the baby is born he asks for a tablet and writes his name is john. With that his voice returns and he says, blessed be the God of Israel he has raised up a mighty savior for us. Barbra Brown Taylor says Zacharias doubt and disbelief is a failure of imagination more than anything else He is so used to bad stuff that he can’t imagine good stuff. He is a good guide for us as we digest and enact the goals of COP21. Kathleen Norris says at least he has 9 months to think it over. When he breaks his silence it is to praise God. The Pope does not condemn us for sins against the earth and the poor. The Pope Praises God and the earth and then us for being willing to hope against hope.

The second frame is the threatening one. The only thing that could derail this enormous direction and agreement from the wise and weathered people of the world is terrorism. And it may just do that. Those who just can’t believe that anything good can happen are so tortured that they may decide to prohibit it. The good has only to be for them. The good has only to be for their tribe and their distortion of their tribe. The good so fully pertains to their own story that they have to murder to make it true. A man in Colorado Springs felt he had to murder to stop murder. Stories run amuk if we allow the fear plot to overtake. Stories sparkle if we tutor ourselves to lean towards praise.

Interestingly the lead news stories all these last ten days have been San Bernardino or Chicago street erupting or the French election, moving to the right in Islamohobia. The bad news loves to edge out the good news. Indeed good people and decent governments world wide to commit to less than 2 degrees Celsius as a goal and find themselves spending all their money and energy on a security state, which would shut down the very dissidence that brought the world to a good goal. We can’t lose our streets right now. There may even be a strange, bizarre, how can that thing be, collusion here. Governments and the corporations that all but own them will find it much too easy to shut things down. That can’t happen, especially right now, especially if the spring is not to be silenced again.

I think of Donald Grump and his uncanny form of demagoguery. He speaks for the early Zechariah, the one who said How can anything good be? I think of the way many of us ridicule Trump the way he ridicules others the way ridicule triumphs as a self-protecting shield. People who weather and wear for the good don’t ridicule anyone. Even a demagogue. We wait them out. We do call them out but with pity, not ridicule, compassion, not anger. We shake our heads at their fear, not our fists. We can’t allow the security state to be the lead story.

A third frame from the third and fourth world. In my start up in France – not my starting to start up – I learned what the third and forth world are saying. They want help “leapfrogging” over the industrial cycle of fossil fuel oriented economies. They want women involved. They argue for very big subjects very well. Like bio mimicry. Like perma culture. Like resilience. Like regenerativity. I could do a whole sermon on what each of these directions mean for a new earth friendly global economy. They used to be the kind of words hippies through around. Now you can hear whole international panels on each subject. We saw example after example of people doing good local things. Like green bonds and agricultural cooperatives and solar and wind. We saw people up and down the Champ Elysee biking and swinging in order to make the energy to light the street. We also saw the wild cartoons of Donald Trump beheading the statue of liberty and the people’s climate pavilions making smoothies and pushing beets. COP21 had a lot of humor, a lot of hummus, a lot of humus, a lot of human.

We heard a Zambian woman interpret Rachel Carson. She said, “The Control Men, which is what Carson calls them, thought they could just get rid of insects and not butterflies. They didn’t realize that everything is connected and that the way they killed song birds was by killing insects. They didn’t understand that we little people are part of the world too. They still don’t understand that. But we will help them understand that with our beauty and our dignity and our sorghum. We will not die quietly. We will not outsource our responsibility.”

We are knee deep in the question Zechariah’s question: How can these things be? Mary also asked the same question: How can these things be? Both of them were actually confronted with a positive, which they interpreted as a great negative. Both of them had a sniff of the Messianic and were appropriated scared of it. Their question begins as a WHAT? And moves to an OH MY.
My Zambian friend also said that she had read Charles Darwin and that his work is not about the survival of the fittest. His work is about the survival of the people who are most adaptable to change. Adaptation is fundamentally biological but it also needs a rehabituation of the brain. Fearful brains are not adaptive. They don’t pay attention to the long term but instead get buried in the short term. They don’t pay attention to the roots but just the flowers.

“ALFRED, it’s spinning.” Roy Kerr, a New Zealand-born physicist in his late 20s, had, for half an hour, been chain-smoking his way through some fiendish mathematics. Alfred Schild, his boss at the newly built Centre for Relativity at the University of Texas, had sat and watched. Now, having broken the silence, Kerr put down his pencil. He had been searching for a new solution to Albert Einstein’s equations of general relativity, and at last he could see in his numbers and symbols a precise description of how space-time—the four-dimensional universal fabric those equations describe—could be wrapped into a spinning ball. He had found what he was looking for.

He was understanding how these things be AT ALL. And yes, the world is spinning. It is spinning towards its best self. It always has been and will continue to do so. We are part of its spin. We will probably prepare our whole life to be a part of its spin and not be fully prepared. Just like this Christmas, we will join the stargazers world wide and look up and see a Star. A Star that is spinning too.

Lo How a Rose Eer blooming. That’s how these things can be.

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