READING  The Second Coming, WIlliam Butler Yeats

The Second Coming is one of the best known poems written by William Butler Yeats.   He wrote it shortly after the end of the first world war, which had shaken Europe with its brutality and was accompanied by the fall of empires in Austria-Hungary, Germany,  and Russia, as well as the Ottoman empire ruled from Turkey.   Closer to home for Yeats, the Irish independence movement was waging a guerilla war against British rule.  The first verse of the poem gives us images of chaos, as well as a sense of helplessness and despair: “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  It is also a poem of apocalypse - not a Christian apocalypse, but something else - ominous and mysterious.  It is a poem without answers.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

READING - Harriet Diamond
Harriet Diamond is an artist and member of this congregation whose installation “The Maelstrom” was recently at a gallery in Easthampton. She graciously gave me permission to share pictures of her work as well as parts of her artist’s statement about it.  Harriet wrote:

“The Maelstrom is a scary palace born out of my personal fear of death and magnified and confirmed by the existential threat of climate change.  Though I must reconcile myself to my own mortality, it will always be beyond my nature to accept the imminent death of our species.  This is what starts my maelstrom spinning.

In “The Maelstrom” you’ll find picnickers and people floating on a dark sea, contemplating the heavens with awe.  You’ll also see a frustrated modern human perched upon a crumbling cement edifice screaming “It isn’t fair!”  Some people are saving their children, some are helping strangers, some are despairing.  There are folks bailing out a swampling boat, and a guy fixing the outboard.  

Of course the major question is what to hold onto - is there something to grasp onto that is truly rooted?  James Baldwin’s simple quote settles me and I think it points a way.

“The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”  - James Baldwin


There are many things about which it makes sense to be afraid.  Our story was from Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series, in which the friends hike up a mountain and encounter rock slides, raptors, and snakes - all good things to fear, if you happen to be a small creature like a frog or a toad.  

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

Humans have other fears.  Fears that come when we feel that things are falling apart, when we look at the overwhelming problems and challenges all over the globe:  the climate crisis, the effects of centuries of racism, enslavement and colonial oppression, threats to democracy, the political climate here and abroad, the insidious effects of social media on our children and on civil discourse, the rise in degradation of women.  You can make your own list.   There are enough problems and challenges to make anyone want to hide in the closet or under the bedcovers, with or without a friend. 

Where can and do we find what we need - whether it’s comfort, a call to action, new perspectives, relief, or a wake-up call when we have crawled into bed and need to get up, if only for the sake of our spiritual well-being?

One place to find all of those things is in the arts:  in music and poetry, in all the visual arts, in films, novels, plays and stories.

One of those novels is Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.  

All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change.  Embrace change, shape change.  God Is change.

Those are the central tenets of a religion called Earthseed, a religion invented by Butler’s  protagonist.  She is 15 year old Lauren Olamina, a black girl living with her family in a city south of Los Angeles.  The year is 2024. 

Butler’s novel was published thirty years ago, in 1993.  It was acclaimed when it appeared, and there has been a resurgence of interest in it for the past several years.  In 2017 New Yorker writer Abby Aguirre described its setting this way: 

“Global warming has brought drought and rising seawater. The middle class and working poor live in gated neighborhoods, where they fend off the homeless with guns and walls. Fresh water is scarce, as valuable as money. Pharmaceutical companies have created “smart drugs,” which boost mental performance, and “pyro,” a pill that gives those who take it sexual pleasure from arson. Fires are common. Police services are expensive, though few people trust the police. Public schools are being privatized, as are whole towns.”  

Overt racism is everywhere.  Jobs are scarce, good jobs almost non-existent, and the gap between the rich and everyone else is enormous.  The best many can hope for is to land work on a rich person’s well-guarded estate, out in the countryside. 

It’s dangerous outside the walls of Lauren’s neighborhood, and her father, a Baptist preacher who still has a paid job teaching at a local college, is one of the few in the neighborhood who goes beyond the walls alone.  Lauren’s family helps keep their neighborhood community together.  Her stepmother teaches a one-room school.  People grow their own food, and grind acorns for flour.  Everyone is trained on survival skills.  Older children learn how to use guns.

 One night, the wall is breached and the neighborhood is destroyed by marauding, drug-crazed arsonists and the looters who follow them.  Most of Lauren’s family and neighbors are killed.  She and a few others escape, and start a trek north.  Lauren is determined to survive, and to plant Earthseed communities of people determined to survive together.

It is a chilling picture.  In the 1998 sequel, Parable of the Talents, the U.S. elects a president named Donner, who has run on a platform of ultra-right Christian supremacy and the promise to “Make America Great Again.”   The author, who died in 2006, said of that book, “This was not about prophecy. This was a cautionary tale, although people have told me it was prophecy. All I have to say to that is: I certainly hope not.”  

Back in 2017, shortly after a real-life version of President Donner moved into the Oval Office, New Yorker writer Aguirre wrote, “(In the early 1990s) Butler extrapolated her vision of a near-future dystopia from what she read in the news.   …(She) became the first science-fiction writer to be awarded a MacArthur fellowship. The grant, she hoped, would enable her to finish four more books she had planned for the Parable series.”

But, according to Aguirre,  Butler found the story was ‘too depressing’ and turned to other work.

Earthseed believers form communities where people share resources and talents, protect themselves and one another, and eventually prepare to plant colonies elsewhere in the solar system.   Late in the 21st century, the first spaceship leave for a planet beyond our solar system, its passengers frozen in suspended animation. Lauren lives long enough to see it go.

Do humans have to leave the planet in order to save themselves?  Do we have to leave to save the planet?  

I know some of you have read Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 Ministry for the Future.  That book is described by one critic as a “climate crisis sci-fi future novel that actually offers hope.”  It too begins in the middle of this decade, with a heat wave in India that kills millions of people.  

The ministry is an international group with a mandate to “advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens and creatures…” … The staff includes professionals from many different countries - lawyers, economists, ecologists, earth, ocean and atmospheric scientists; disaster and refugee specialists; and experts in artificial intelligence.    

The novel charts the work of these leaders and their teams, along with some personal drama and a tiny love story snuck in at the end, as the author’s reward for Mary, the ministry’s beleaguered head. 

Their ministry for the future is as fictional as Earthseed’s pilot trip into space.  In it, problems get addressed through the persistent efforts of people who work to persuade governments to allow some of their agencies to work together.  It is a dream, not of utopia, but of powerful people who come to a gradual recognition, and willingness to reckon with, the realities of the climate crisis.  

I’m oversimplifying - but the two novels seem to me to present very different views on addressing our present and looming crisis:  Butler’s vision is of small communities of people banding together, forming a network of other communities, working outside the structures of government and corporate powers.  Robinson’s vision is one that enlists those structures and powers.  I suspect we need both.

How might any of this help, when fear for the future and dread of the present overtake us?  Harriet Diamond asked what we can grasp and hold on to.  Wendell Berry wrote:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

The wild still exists.  We can turn off the news and put down our phones and remind ourselves to seek it out and notice it.  We can rest in its peace and beauty.  Let is hold us and heal us.

And from time to time it might help to take a long view:  The earth is four and a half billion years old.  John McPhee says, “Geologists live with geologic scale.  With your arms spread wide to represent all time on earth, look at one hand.  The Cambrian (544 million years ago) begins at the wrist.  ….  All of the Cenozoic (the 65 million years from the death of the dinosaurs and ammonites) is a fingerprint, and in a single stroke with a medium grained nail file you could eradicate human history.

The only lasting thing is change.  But the earth will remain for a very long time.  The shapes beauty takes will change.  But beauty will endure.  It’s a point of faith, for me, that beauty is built into the system.

I also have to remind myself to look to the younger people who have different ways of seeing and are finding new ways.  One of them is a Black activist named adrienne maree brown, who has been inspired by ideas from Butler and others, and has coined the term emergent strategy for a collaborative, generative approach to responding both to crises that threaten to overwhelm us, and to smaller issues and opportunities.

Brown wrote:

“Even our smallest acts of integrity grow our collective capacity to live our visions into reality.”

Janet Clark spoke to us again last Sunday of the impacts of climate change.  

 She reminded us that mining and burning coal, oil and gas cause extreme weather and habitat loss, and that some of the powerhouses of the economy - major banks - invest heavily in coal, oil and gas.   She encouraged us to change banks and/or to get a different credit card, if we are currently patronizing one of the major funders of those industries.

There will  be a demonstration starting at Pulaski Park at 4:30 pm on March 21 and proceeding to the intersection of Pleasant and King Streets, a protest against Chase Bank.  Chase plans to open at that intersection very soon.  Chase is the largest funder of fossil fuels.  

We have had our United Airlines Visa card for well over thirty years.  We got it when we were still flying once or twice a year to visit Booker’s parents in California.  It’s a Chase card.  So it’s time for us to “embrace change.”  We are in the process of getting a new card.  

How much difference will that make?  And what can we hold onto?

I’ll hold onto what adrienne maree brown has said:  “Even our smallest acts of integrity grow our collective capacity to live our visions into reality.”

I hope you might be able to take that to heart when you feel utterly despairing, when you think that your own small efforts can’t possibly matter.   Think of what you are doing as smalls act of integrity.  Think of them as shaping change.  And do them with a smile, in a spirit of kindness.  It will be good for your soul.

We can keeping faith with one another, we will continue to learn and grow. 

I’ll bring us back once more to Wendell Berry:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

May we find our way to do that real work with integrity and with hope.  And may we companion one another on that real journey. 


All of us bring light to exciting solutions never tried before
For it is our hope that implores us, at our uncompromising core,
To keep rising up for an earth more than worth fighting for.