SERMON: Wolves in the Walls

The Rev. Alison Cornish delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Fellowship of Lower Bucks County on March 3, 2019.

Chalice Lighting (In Unison)
We light our chalice this morning, grateful for the love that we experience in this beloved community.  May this flame light our way to inner peace, to love for each other, and faith in ourselves.

Reading The Gates of Hope from Victoria Safford

Gabrielle Münter, Garden Gate

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope—
Not the prudent gates of Optimism,
Which are somewhat narrower.
Not the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense;
Nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness,
Which creak on shrill and angry hinges
(People cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through)
Nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of
“Everything is gonna’ be all right.”
But a different, sometimes lonely place,
The place of truth-telling,
About your own soul first of all and its condition.
The place of resistance and defiance,
The piece of ground from which you see the world
Both as it is and as it could be
As it will be;
The place from which you glimpse not only struggle,
But the joy of the struggle.
And we stand there, beckoning and calling,
Telling people what we are seeing
Asking people what they see.
—Victoria Safford “The Gates of Hope”


Sermon – The Wolves in the Walls

Isaak Ilych Levitan, Wood in Winter. 1885

‘There are wolves in the walls.’  That’s what young Lucy insists to her jam-making mother, tuba-playing father, and snarky brother in a richly drawn not-just-children’s book that vacillates between scary and funny, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean. Lucy hears noises – hustling, bustling, scrambling and rustling noises – howling and yowling and bumping and thumping noises.  To Lucy, that can mean only one thing – there are wolves living in the walls of her family’s big old house. But her parents and brother are unconvinced – ‘it’s mice’ says her mother – ‘it’s rats’ says her father – ‘it’s bats’ says her brother (‘or maybe you’re bats’ he says in typical annoying-brother fashion).  But every one of them caps off their alternative explanation with the ominous ‘You know what they say – if the wolves come out of the walls, it’s all over.’ ‘What’s all over?’ asks Lucy. ‘Who says that?’ she queries.  Their replies are vague – ‘you know – IT’ – ‘everyone know that!’ 

Well, as the story goes on, and in a complete reversal of the classic tale of the boy who cried wolf, it turns out there ARE wolves in the walls, and they DO come out, and IT IS ALL OVER.  As the family hastily retreats to their back garden, they watch their home be taken over by jam-eating, tuba-playing, video-gaming, people-clothes-wearing, partying wolves.  Lucy’s parents and brother begin scheming where they might live next – the Arctic Circle? the middle of the desert? outer space – anywhere as long as it’s far, far away from wolves.  But Lucy wants to live in her house. 

Felted Pig Puppet, lauraleeburch, Etsy

When Lucy realizes her beloved pig-puppet was left behind in the house in the scramble of fleeing, she sneaks back into the house, wiggles through the walls now vacated by the wolves, and retrieves her dear friend.  The next day, the decamped family returns to their routines of school and work, though they continue to dream about where to move.  Lucy proposes they retake possession of their own house.

And that night, creeping through the walls, the family reels at the wolves’ bravado – ‘my jam, my second-best tuba, my video game high scores, my socks’ they cry – and, brandishing the legs of a broken chair they’ve found in the walls, the family COMES OUT OF THE WALLS. 

‘The people have come out of the walls!’ shouts the fattest, laziest wolf, ‘and when the people come out of the walls, IT’S ALL OVER!’ Off dash the wolves, supposedly to a place far, far away from humans. The family retakes their home, restores order, and returns to their daily pursuits.  But in the final pages of the book, we sense the story is far from over as Lucy hears scratching and squeezing and creaking, and a noise like an elephant trying not to sneeze … coming from inside the walls.

My abridged version of The Wolves in the Walls does not do justice to its entertaining storyline or nightmarish illustrations.  I highly recommend your taking the time to seek out the book yourself, particularly those of you who have children or grandchildren who delight in the scary-funny.  But my hope this morning is that the story of the resourceful heroine Lucy, her ‘la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you’ family, and the wolves (and perhaps other boisterous, larger-than-life creatures who live out of plain sight though their presence is felt and heard), might help us explore the challenging, and uncomfortable, subject of climate change.

‘Huh?’  I can hear you thinking … ‘you’ve lost me.’

The Wolves in the Walls is a story about truth-telling.  Lucy, in the words of Victoria Safford we heard earlier, is ‘telling people what [she is] seeing, [and] asking people what they see.’ But Lucy is silenced and ignored by creatively concocted denials. She’s given other, ‘likely’ explanations – rats, mice, bats. (Alternative facts, anyone?) And yet her family also intones a refrain of the vague and ominous ‘if the wolves come out of the walls, it’s all over.’  So, the family is aware of a threat, but they can neither offer more concrete details, explain its meaning, nor face up to and vanquish ‘IT.’  And so the easiest thing to do is go about life as usual – making jam, playing tubas, video-gaming – leaving Lucy on her own, until the truth literally pounces upon them.  Lucy was crying wolf – but she was right all along. 

Which is exactly what we’re finding out now about climate change. The data-keepers, weather-trackers, biologists, climatologists, zoologists, journalists – the Bill McKibbens and James Hansens and Katharine Hayhoes and Tim deChristophers and Naomi Kleins – have not been ‘crying wolf’ in the classic way. They have heard, and reported on, the wolves in the walls: things known but not necessarily plainly seen. And, they are frighteningly right, possibly all the way to that ominous phrase, ‘IT’S ALL OVER.’  And yet, most of us are much like Lucy’s family: unwilling, or unable, to hear the truth, never mind talk about it. La-la-la-la. I can’t hear you!

Did you know only seven in 10 Americans (correctly) say the world is warming up?  As the temperatures rise, so slowly does the number of Americans who agree this change will harm plants and animals and future generations.  Other recent survey results are more discouraging: although 97% of climate scientists agree humans are causing warming — and have for years — only 49% of Americans surveyed said ‘most scientists think global warming is happening.’  Just shy of 50% of us accept the consensus of science – the truth – behind climate change. (Yale Program on Climate Change Communication)

But here’s the statistic I find most troubling, most like ‘Lucy-and-her-family’:  in answer to the question, ‘Do you ever talk about [climate change]?’ 2/3 of Americans answered ‘never.’ Not ‘sometimes’ or ‘only to my close friends’ or ‘just to my pig-puppet’ – never.

My friend, Jess Ballenger, who first introduced me to The Wolves in the Walls and how it might speak to predicaments about climate change writes:

… the barrier to this conversation hasn’t been a lack of information or understanding about global warming, but an inability or unwillingness to fully accept and focus on the dilemmas it poses.  More than anything else, climate change is an issue that has been characterized by denial.  Now, when I say denial I don’t mean the anti-science kind of denial that claims that the continued existence of winter proves it’s all a hoax… there are other, much more insidious forms of denial:

—There’s the denial that this has anything to do with our daily lives. Climate change can seem so abstract, so far away that we can tell ourselves it’s only impacting other people, other places. And there always seems to be something more immediate and important to think about, isn’t there? …

—There’s the denial that assumes we really don’t have to worry about this, because science and technology are bound to come to the rescue. They always do, don’t they? 

And, for people of faith, there’s the most profound form of denial: the refusal to believe that this has anything to do with our spiritual lives, that it has anything to do with our faith communities … our profound interest in [the care of] Creation, and a commitment to justice and service toward the most vulnerable people [emphasis added].

Jess Ballenger, ‘The Wolves in the Walls,’ undated and unpublished remarks, Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, PA.

So, what I’ve learned from Jess and others, and taking a cue from The Wolves in the Walls, is in order to have an effective, meaningful conversation about climate change, we must engage both the truth and the human talent for denial. 

Annual global temperatures from 1850-2017 Ed Hawkins, Climate Lab Book

Let’s start with this truth: climate change, the rising surface temperature of our planet Earth, is happening. 

The source of this truth?  Scientific observations and documentation.

The facts behind this truth? Human activities, most especially, the combustion of fossil-based fuels, including coal, oil, and natural gas, which release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  Other significant contributors:  agricultural activities such as factory-farming of animals, and clear-cutting of rainforests. 

The conclusion we draw from this truth? Rising temperatures pose a risk to humans, and to the multitude of ecosystems of which we are a part, and on which we depend. 

Flooding near Harrisburg image source

We are already seeing these risks play out in real time: as the temperature warms, ice melts; as ice melts, seas rise; higher sea levels mean more coastal flooding and greater storm surges.  Warm air holds more moisture; as more of the earth’s water is retained in the atmosphere, there is more extreme weather and weather-driven phenomena – droughts, wildfires, severe storms, infestations and migrations of species. These types of impacts will increasingly force people to move from their homes [(and much further than their back gardens)].  The most vulnerable people in the world are feeling the effects of climate change first, and will suffer the most.  And, one the most painful ironies: though the impacts are much greater on the poor, the affluent contribute much more to the problem. (Jess Ballenger, Ibid.)

And finally, this question: what do we do with this truth?

My humble suggestion: we accept it, and begin working, in earnest, on our well-honed denials.

I say denials – plural – because, like Lucy’s rats-bats-mice-explaining-family, there is not just one way of denying the existence of those wolves. Every one of us crafts our own unique version.  I quoted a few from my friend Jess.  And there are more – we are indeed a creative species.  I offer these in the spirit of knowing thyself helps in healing oneself. And in healing ourselves, we may well be moved to act to heal our beloved home.

The Social Capital Project published a major study of American’s attitudes and worldviews, especially as related to the environment and climate change.  As the authors say, there are obstacles that “keep Americans, even some with the strongest environmental values, from getting involved.” Which of these speaks back to you as you look in the mirror?

  • ‘It’s just too little, too late.’ The news is not good. We watch the melting ice of Antarctica, the burning of the Indonesian rainforests, the soaring temperatures in Phoenix, all in the flick of a TV remote.  But to what end?  Does it all transform us … or shut us down?
  • ‘The challenge is just too big and overwhelming.’ What’s the most important thing to do? ‘Tell me again, switching light bulbs will help the planet … how?’ How easy it is to tune out … or
  • ‘It’s just plain too hard to wrap our minds around climate change because it isn’t a simple cause-and-effect problem.’  Environmentalism as we know it came of age in the era of pollution – messes that can be identified, targeted, and cleaned up – but how do you ‘clean up’ carbon, ‘restoring’ the climate the way a Superfund site can be mitigated and brought back?  And
  • ‘Working on these issues is fine for those with money and time – or who are urban, or white, or professional … ’  But what about everyone who is facing the immediate and pressing problems of merely staying safe, employed, fed, insured, housed? 

Here’s another, edging toward cynicism:

  • ‘Big money controls the game – and the game is fixed.’ My puny efforts are nothing compared to the momentum of a government in retrograde, or the powerful corporations who seem to control it. 

And a couple more … (this time from Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy , pgs. 60-64.)

  • We might accept the truth, and be discomfited by it, but if no one else is talking about it … when we learn something disturbing, but see most people acting as if it’s no big deal, then it’s easier to believe the problem can’t be that serious.  Perhaps, we think, they have it right, and we have it wrong.  Or …
  • ‘It’s not my job to do anything about this’ – other people know a lot more about it, we reason.

And perhaps the grandmother of all denials –the most emotionally honest and heartbreaking:

  • We can’t bear what this means for us, individually or collectively – the potential loss and scale of change is simply too enormous to contemplate.  We are in the first stage of grief – which we all know, is denial.

What are we to do? 

We have a choice to make.

It’s a choice between the accepting the mysteriously proffered ‘IT’S ALL OVER,’ or to follow the rockier path to Victoria Safford’s ‘piece of ground from which [we] see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be.’ We get there – and I’m presuming that’s where we want to go – by following Lucy. 

Wolf Rocks hike Forbes State Forest PA

Lucy speaks truth to power – to her parents, and to ignorance, too – to her brother.  Lucy stands her ground, firmly rooted in resistance and defiance. She knows what she knows. Lucy asks questions: she’s not ready to accept what ‘everyone says’ when it doesn’t really explain anything.  Lucy braves danger to rescue what she loves: her pig-puppet.  Lucy wants to live in her home – not in the Arctic, or the desert, or god-forsaken outer space. Lucy leads her family to reclaim what belongs to them because no else steps into leadership.  And Lucy stays vigilant – everyone else might go back to making jam, playing the tuba, or video-gaming – but Lucy has an ear cocked to those walls, and what might well be stirring within.

Each and every one of us is called – some would say are tasked with – speaking truth to power. There’s a lot not right about our country right now, but that right and responsibility of democracy is encoded in our U.S. Constitution – and in our UU principles as ‘a free and responsible search for truth and meaning’ and ‘the right of conscience.’  We shy away from these at our own peril.  Our Unitarian Universalist forbearers used the twin spiritual practices of resistance and defiance to good effect advancing abolition, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, equity for LGBTQ+ people – what’s holding us back now?  As 21st century Unitarian Unitarians, we pledge to Side with Love, to harness love’s power to stop oppression.  Couldn’t the subject of that oppression be … our beloved Earth?  Don’t we love, and want to reclaim, this home, and in so doing, banish the fantasy there is another home awaiting us someplace, ‘out there?’ 

To see the world both as it is (the wolves are here …) and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be … as in the words of the prophet Isaiah —

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them

Isaiah 11:6, NRSV

    Let’s pick ourselves up, and follow Lucy through the Gates of Hope.

After-service discussion

Complete the sentence: When I think of climate change and the future, I feel….

What does it mean to respond to climate change as a person of faith? 

Imagine a fellowship community that is responding faithfully to the challenge of climate change. What sort of things are they engaged in? What sort of things could you see UUFLB involved in?