NOTE: I’m currently attending COP 24, the latest UN climate summit, in Katowice, Poland. I have been posting on Facebook. One unfortunate topic has been an attack of kidney stones that I have suffered along the way. This latest post, because of its length and topicality, I place here as a blog post.
I’m tempted to start with a good Canadian apology, and say that I am sorry for another update about my kidney stones, but actually, looking at this from the standpoint of the COP 24 Climate Summit, it has got to start being about my kidney stones, and about James Balog’s knees, and your pains, and the suffering of Silesian coalminers in this region, and all of the other painful adjustments of society as we go through this God-ordained transition away from fossil fuels.
I was fine through all the first day of the COP, but then was wakened by some pain after three hours of sleep. I’m now writing this from underneath my blanket. I’ve had a couple hours of pacing around the room and have added the indignity of peeing in a bottle since I don’t want to keep going to the hallway water closet.
“This too shall pass.” That’s a good reassurance for anyone who is suffering, though agonizingly ironic for someone passing a kidney stone. A better rendering of this statement would be “The passing will occur,” because the passing is the point. The passing is the “This” as in “The passing will pass.” The pain occurs only when the kidney stone is on the move, when it is on its way out. I know that this stone has been in my kidney at least since March. An MRI from a previous passing showed that I still had one stone in the queue. So long as this stone was lodged in my kidney, unmoving, I experienced no pain. Once it drops into my bladder for a layover, there will be no pain. But if I want the stone removed from my system, there is some necessary pain in the removal.
I think that’s why Friday morning’s attack was so violent. My father-in-law was at our house installing some new doors. He has had some massive kidney stone attacks and has required surgery for at least one of them. He asked if my attacks are so painful that they result in vomiting. “That only happened during the first one, when I was in India,” I told him. “I don’t normally vomit.” Ten minutes later I was in our bathroom with my head in the toilet and was dry heaving for the next hour-and-a-half. I think my attack was so violent because I knew that I had tickets to fly to Poland the next day, and so I prayed, “Lord, I know how this works. Please move the stone far and quickly.” Two of Jesus’s prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane are recorded for us. The first is “Abba Father, please remove this cup [of impending suffering].” It is a prayer of deliverance. The second prayer is “Father, if this cup cannot be removed except by my drinking of it, then not my will be done, but yours.” It too is a prayer of deliverance—the cup is removed in the end—but it is deliverance THROUGH the pain, not deliverance FROM the pain. It was the Father’s will that Jesus had to drink the cup for it to be removed.
I have had numerous people tell me, on the occasion of each of my attacks including this one: “I hear kidney stones are the closest that a man can feel to the pain of childbirth.” Then the joke is, “Yeah, that may be true, but we are still not allowed to say that to our wives.” Honestly though, now I think I could say it to my wife who is a certified spiritual director. Robynn helps others accept their own pain without comparing it to other’s, or without questioning whether one’s own pain is less worthy of solace from God. She also understands that pain and suffering bring forth something new and alive in the world. Robynn gave birth to three wonderful human-beings. To date, I have given birth to three small pieces of crystalized calcium, and yet I also sense the birth of other things in me: humility, vulnerability, empathy, perspective. Additionally, maybe my reflections will prove to be life-giving to you too and to the Christian climate movement.
The pains of childbirth and kidney stones are about transitionary movement through a constricted space. Last week, Robynn and I listened to Austrian monk David Steindl-Rast being interviewed by Krista Tippett on the podcast On Being. Here is an excerpt from their dialogue:
BR. STEINDL-RAST: Well, when we look at things like global warming, or the destruction of the environment, or this uncontrollable violence that’s breaking out here and there, and can’t be — you can’t touch it, you can’t grab it, that is really — I think that justifies us to say we are at the brink of self-annihilation. However, we must acknowledge our anxiety about it. We must acknowledge our anxiety. But we must not fear. . . .
MS. TIPPETT: We have to acknowledge our anxiety, but we must not fear.
BR. STEINDL-RAST: Not fear. There is a great difference. See, anxiety, or anxious, being anxious, this word comes from a root that means “narrowness,” and choking, and the original anxiety is our birth anxiety. We all come into this world through this very uncomfortable process of being born, unless you happen to be a caesarean baby. It’s really a life-and-death struggle for both the mother and the child. And that is the original, the prototype, of anxiety. At that time, we do it fearlessly, because fear is the resistance against this anxiety. See? If you go with it, it brings you into birth. If you resist it, you die in the womb. Or your mother dies.
The host nation, and therefore President, of COP 24 is Poland. From what I’ve been able to pick up from some of the sessions and some of my reading, Poland is not only anxious—that is, “moving through a constricted space”—they are also afraid of the Paris process. Many of us raised our eyebrows when it was announced that COP 24 would be held, not in Warsaw or Krakow or even Lodz (pop. 700,000), but rather in Katowice, which is off the beaten path, without a major airport, whose population of 300,000 is suddenly expected to absorb 30,000 visitors including many heads of state. Katowice however is located in Silesia, the center of Poland’s historic coal-mining region. Poland seems to be using this COP for its own domestic purposes, to bring in some global cash to this depressed region, but to also make a “just transition for the coal-mining industry” a front-and-center topic for this COP. Coal has a featured space in Poland’s national pavilion, and we’ve all heard that the only presentation from the Trump administration will be, like year’s COP, a panel extolling the virtues of so-called “clean coal.” One official with the Council on Energy, Environment and Water said in a seminar yesterday that, while “just transition” is important, at this COP it represents a distraction and an abdication of leadership on Poland’s part, the President of the COP. The parties at this COP must stay focussed on the purpose of this particular COP, which is the crucial establishment of the Rulebook which will rigorously guide implementation of the Paris Agreement.
“JUST transition” is important, but often its discussion is a way to resist the pain and suffering of just (or mere) TRANSITION. No transition will be free from injustice, though we should work our hardest at excising as much injustice as possible. Nonetheless, transition will always have some element of childbirth or kidney stones about it.
MS. TIPPETT: So, anxiety is a — not just an understandable, but a reasonable response to a lot of human experience.
BR. STEINDL-RAST: It’s a reasonable response, and we are to acknowledge it and affirm it, because to deny our anxiety is another form of resistance.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And so, that is reasonable, but the fear is actually that moment of resisting.
BR. STEINDL-RAST: But the fear is life destroying.
MS. TIPPETT: And it’s a completely different move, and it takes us, our bodies, our minds, in a completely different direction.
BR. STEINDL-RAST: Destroys it, yeah. And that is why we can look back at our life, not only at our birth, but at all other spots where we got into really tight spots and suffered anxiety. Anxiety is not optional in life. It’s part of life. We come into life through anxiety. And we look at it, and remember it, and say to ourselves, we made it. We got through it. We made it. In fact, the worst anxieties and the worst tight spots in our life, often, years later, when you look back at them, reveal themselves as the beginning of something completely new, a completely new life.
We conclude however with a different Roman Catholic, a Polish one. Pope John Paul II was the Archbishop of Krakow and shepherded over this region where COP 24 has been convened. In his inaugural homily, he proclaimed to us: “Do not be afraid.” It became a theme for his papacy. In July 28, 2002 at Mass for World Youth Day in Toronto, John Paul said:
You are young, and the Pope is old. Eighty-two or 83 years of life is not the same as 22 or 23. But the Pope still fully identifies with your hopes and aspirations. Although I have lived through much darkness, under harsh totalitarian regimes, I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal…Do not let that hope die! Stake your lives on it! We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”
“We must acknowledge our anxiety, but we must not fear.” That must become the cornerstone of our climate messaging. And, oh yes, also “drink lots of water.”
If you are interested in further exploring considering a fossil fuel transition from a Christian perspective, may I recommend my chapel presentation at Houghton College: “Job 28 and Wisdom for an Energy Transition.” My remarks begin at 4:38.