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Curse you, Rev. Jonker!

Well not really, but we were coached to open provocatively.

Still, it’s 3:34 am and I am re-listening to his sermon. I have coffee going and I need to lead a field trip at 8:30 but here I am blogging instead of sleeping. I’m going to pay for this when I run out of gas this afternoon.

Parachuting in online, I caught Rev. Jonker’s sermon (LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church) on Romans 12 where he focused on phrases “share with the Lord’s people” and “practice hospitality.” And it’s kept me awake.

Sharing, he explained, is the Greek word koinonia, which is difficult to translate directly but includes elements of generosity (Romans 15:26), fellowship (1 Corinthians 1:9), and partaking in the context of communion (1 Corinthians 1:10).

He emphasized that Romans 12 is a universal truth but must be understood in the context of ancient Roman culture where life for common people was crowded, squalid, and chaotic. Emergent then is a direction to radical community marked by radical giving and sharing of all things.

The early church ideal was captured in instruction from the Didache:
Give without hesitating and without grumbling. Never turn away from the needy. Share (koinonia) all your possessions with your brother. Do not claim anything as your own.” (Transcribing from Rev. Jonker here.)

The second phrase (practice hospitality) means that radical giving is rooted in radical fellowship, fueled by sincere love. Not obligation — giving out of love.

And then, Rev. Jonker paused and allowed for his listeners that all this radicalness might be impractical.

And my heart sank.

Impractical. That word. I’ve been teaching this week about the climate crisis and recalling a conversation with a colleague who argued that we should focus on solutions like emerging carbon capture technologies that were practical – implying that transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables and even actively working to keep fossil fuels in the ground were impractical.

Who gets to decide what’s practical?

Before I fell asleep, I read a grim new study (released August 1) in the respected journal PNAS that argued that the climate crisis may have all of creation (humanity included) trending towards a more dire and catastrophic future by 2100 than even the IPCC reports have predicted. You can read The Guardian’s account here.

By themselves, carbon capture technologies might be helpful given the urgency. But independent experts say that the technologies likely are insufficient given the scale of the problem. At worse they become a false hope that fossil fuel industries exploit to give cover for continued pumping and polluting.

Similarly, helping poor people directly, (and Rev. Jonker gave a beautiful example of a foot-care clinic his church runs for the homeless in downtown Grand Rapids) is imperative, but it can also give empowered and wealthy Christians opportunity to “check their charity box” so they can avoid using their privilege to address systemic causes of homelessness and lack of access to healthcare. A modern koinonia addresses systemic problems not in place of but in addition to direct demonstrations of love.

Rev. Jonker’s church almost certainly skews toward disproportionate wealth and political influence relative to the median person in North America. The same can be said of most of the readers of this blog (and western Christianity generally) relative to the median person on the planet. We have agency. Using it is a matter of faithfulness.

Impractical is a dodge, it gives cover to the status quo when radical change is needed. It’s a failure of imagination and a barrier to faithfulness.

If Paul were writing to wealthy western Christians, I think the context would be the global scope of climate injustice and a more expansive view of fellowship and community, one that would fold in the rest of creation.

Radical giving would then mean more than giving of our finances. It would mean a giving from (giving up?) our breezy love of convenience and our blithe idolatry for social, political, and economic structures that enable our privilege and drive the climate crisis.

The second phrase, “practice hospitality”, is from a Greek word (philoxenia) that means love of strangers. This phrase, seems to me, has an inherent imbalance between one who is vulnerable (stranger) and one who is empowered to be able to show hospitality. Here again, an expanded view of the phrase would recognize a special responsibility for those who have agency to use it for the greater good, including non-human creation. This point from this passage was directed at me in the sermon preached at Carol and my wedding (34 years on Friday!) no doubt because the pastor knew I was a biology major headed to graduate school in an environmental field.

The climate crisis is fast becoming a climate catastrophe and it’s a source of deep injustice to the world’s poor, non-human nature, and future humans and non-humans. This is no longer an abstraction. I have three decades of reading, writing, reviewing, and editing for scientific journals. Recent language in the characteristically staid and conservative voice of science journals is singularly alarming. Even optimistic predictions for emissions reductions will result in bleak futures for children alive right now. We are called to exercise radical love, impractical love.

Paraphrasing Rev. Jonker again, he told his church: “I am not called to tell you practical things. I’m called to tell you what’s in the Book.” With respect to the radical nature of koinonia and philoxenia, he said that Paul meant it, the early church interpreted it that way, and that’s what they did.

He then said: “We have work to do.”

(My thanks to Rev. Jonker for allowing me to riff on his sermon. You may watch it here. The sermon runs from approximately the 1:02 mark to 1:24.)

Photo: Takver. Source: Climate Emergency – PeoplesClimate-Melb-IMG_8280 | Over 30,0… | Flickr,
License: Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic — CC BY-SA 2.0

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Unfortunately, excellent and compelling.

  • Tom says:

    I will offer two responses, with the added disclaimer that I am NOT a “climate denier”, and I do believe it’s an issue that needs to be addressed. That said:

    First, there is much talk about how climate change will unjustly impact the world’s poor, but no talk of how the mitigation of climate change will also negatively impact the world’s poor. Great progress has been made in recent decades in reducing extreme poverty throughout the world, and much of that is due to the availability of abundant energy. Eliminating fossil fuels without having a reliable and economical means of replacing them will inevitably send that trend backwards. Higher energy costs and the ripples subsequent ripples through the rest of the economy have much greater impact on the poor that they do on me. “There’s no free lunch” – everything involves tradeoffs.

    Second, relative to reducing carbon emissions, the word “practical” just refers to things would actually work AND might be politically possible to implement – both halves of that are necessary and that’s just reality. As only one example, the recent rise in the cost of gasoline, a significant part of which is due to efforts to keep carbon in the ground, will likely lead in November to flipping Congress to a Republican party that will be completely hostile to all of the policies you want to see enacted, so where will that leave you (other than having an easy target to rail against on this blog)?

    It seems “practical” to me to work toward 15 or 20 years of replacing coal with natural gas in order to buy time until something more realistic (another word for practical!) than solar and wind power comes along. Maybe our ability to store electricity greatly improves; maybe small modular nuclear reactors are the answer, maybe quantum physics will uncover a magic bullet, I don’t know. What I do know with certainty is that keeping carbon the ground at this moment will make energy significantly more expensive, hence, any progress becomes less politically realistic.

    Perhaps we should have been more like France back in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, ignored the environmentalist movement, and moved instead toward having 75% of our electricity generated by carbon-neutral nuclear rather than coal and gas.

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      Thanks Tom,

      To your first point, it is not true that there is “no talk of how the mitigation of climate change will also negatively affect the poor.” It’s a prominent part of the most recent IPPCC report which includes the principle that any transition away from fossil fuels must be a just transition. You can read it in the technical summary here: (

      To your second point, “practical” is a normative concept, essentially a judgement call with respect to current norms. Your point that “practical” requires “things that actually work AND might be politically possible” bears examining. The “actually work” part is a matter of physics the second part, “politically possible” is a matter of judgement, values, and will. We have no ability to change the physics. We, can however, change the politics (even if difficult, political norms can change). The point I was trying to make, if clumsily, is that wealthy Christians define “practical” in terms of their comfortable norms when the urgency and injustice of the climate crisis should prompt us to creatively access koinonia and philoxenia principles to creatively move those political norms. That is an agency that we have. I see it as a matter of faithfulness and love.

      I have conceded before that transitioning from fossil fuels is complex and will require a mix of low-C and C-neutral fuels and fortunately the costs of renewables are decreasing to the point where they are cheaper than FF-energy in many areas (IPPCC Technical Summary). Is natural gas part of the mix? Maybe. Probably. But it is still a carbon-emitting fuel, and the imperative is to get to net zero C emissions as soon as possible because every increment in global temperature rise invokes real and accelerating damage (and spiraling economic costs!) Bottom line. Natural gas is no magic bullet.

      Finally, the spike in gasoline prices (now 7 weeks in decline!) had nothing to do with policies or normative motivations to “keep it in the ground” that I could find. According to the World Economic Forum, gas prices reflect mostly reflect the price of crude oil in global markets and crude oil prices mostly reflect policies of the OPEC cartel ( Here in the US, production increased even as demand has fallen (

      • Tom says:

        Tim, thanks for the thoughtful response. A couple of things in response:

        I should be clearer that most of my comment wasn’t really addressed specifically to you, I suppose I react more to the climate movement in general. And what I know of that is probably more informed than it should be by what I hear on NPR and similar sources that I follow. So, although the IPCC report may discuss it, I have not heard much time devoted on NPR to worrying about the tradeoffs in poor and developing countries due to driving up the cost of generating power.

        Here’s where I come from: I am a relatively well-informed citizen of the US, politically right-of-center, a committed Christian, and I believe we have a responsibility to care for each other and for creation. I am not anything close to an expert on anything much beyond the things that I do for a living in architecture and construction, not because I don’t have interest, mostly because I don’t have time.

        That said, I’m the guy you need to have with your on your side of the argument, along with a whole bunch of people who pay a lot less attention that I do. I can’t disagree with you if you’re talking about how ‘wealthy Christians define “practical” in terms of their comfortable norms’, but that’s an age-old problem goes all the way back to the old testament and Lazurus at the gate and it applies to every aspect of life. When it comes to the ‘physics’ of a rapid and too-aggressive transition to clean energy, it looks to me not just like a pipe dream, but like a road to disaster: the cost of wind and solar may have fallen, but it is still not reliable; it won’t be reliable until we have a practical means of storing electricity; storing electricity requires batteries full of precious metals for which we depend totalitarian nations that are hostile to us; flipping all of our carbon-burning transportation, heating, and manufacturing to electricity cannot be accomplished without incredible expense; even if that could be accomplished, our electrical grid cannot transmit that much power; and on and on. I have no idea what impact this would have on the average American’s standard of living, but I am absolutely certain that it would be negative.

        I’m sure there are those – perhaps you? – who acknowledge those costs and believe we should be willing to bear them in order to avoid catastrophe. Maybe those people are right, I don’t know – I suppose that depends on which computer model you believe. But I am certain that once those costs come to bear on our economy, there will be politicians who will run on a platform of rolling them back, and those politicians will win elections. And after winning those elections, they will roll the policies back. The last time this country managed to marshal the national will and commit to great expense and sacrifice for the long-term betterment of the world, it was Adolf Hitler and the emperor of Japan we were up against – very tangible and visible. Maybe the “dire and catastrophic future” we face is that clear to you, but it ain’t that clear to most people, particularly to the average jane or joe that’s sitting in the middle of the political spectrum.

        So, my main point is the political reality of it: for the needle to move, more than half the voting population needs to be pushing the needle; and policies that double the cost of heating a home and driving to work not only won’t move the needle in the right direction in the long term, there’s a good chance those policies will end up pushing the needle back the other way.

        Last, I (think) I understand basic economics well enough to know that saying gas prices “reflect mostly the price of crude oil in the global markets . . .” is like saying the price of Corn Flakes is driven by the price of corn – of course that’s true. It also seems obvious that policies limiting that reduce the production of oil in the US will affect the global market. So, yeah, keeping carbon in the ground drives up the price of gasoline.

        There, I’ve blown a chunk Saturday morning life that I’ll never get back, probably a waste of time and words. On the bright side, I burned through the chunk of time where I had planned to mow my small city yard, so I’ve saved the world from a few units of carbon. Thanks for putting up with me.

        • Tim Van Deelen says:

          Thanks Tom, I appreciate that you read and consider my stuff. My plea is to be fair with me. You make several paragraphs of unsupported assertions, so my first impulse is to begin chasing them down for a response because I live in fear of being wrong on a matter of science in a public forum like this. I also know from my last reply to you that all (most?) of the social/political/economic/humanitarian/behavioral issues you raise are analyzed in the most recent IPCC report which deals with explicitly with mitigation. It’s a warm Sunday afternoon where I am, and I am pressed by other things so I am going to resist the impulse.

          My question is: What would convince you? Can you be convinced? Is there some part of your political philosophy blocking you (I assume this is fair to ask since you bring it up when you reply). Would a team of hundreds of international scientists including economists, political scientists, and other social scientists working together in a disciplined fashion to produce a consensus and guidance for global decision makers? That’s what we’ve got in the IPCC process. Do you think they’re all involved in some nefarious plot to crash the world’s economies? To what end?

          I am just a wildlife biologist, but I know how to read the science and make judgements about scientific issues and consensuses (its literally part of my job for nearly 30 years). I am genuinely scared for our kids’ futures and the wonderful variety of life on the planet in all its form.

          As I’ve said, I appreciate you for engaging, and I take your point about needing to convince people like you. I’m trying.

  • J C S says:

    AMEN, Thanks Tom for your thoughts and excellent explanation of the way we should approach and work on the environment issues. Why supposedly educated, intelligent people don’t understand or get this is a mystery to me.

  • Mel V says:

    AMEN to Tom as well. Crash efforts to curtail our carbon footprint will do great damage to the world’s economy and crush the poor. Let’s be practical and use the least damaging one, natural gas. We, the US, would do more for the environment by liquifying it and giving it to poor nations to convert their cola plants than all the windmills we can produce.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Thanking God for you, Tim!
    Excellent work.
    You are right on.

  • Joan Koole says:

    Excellent post- food for thought.
    Thanks for sharing link to Service!
    Being an Frog and Toad fan I soo enjoyed the children message! Loving Reverend Pollywog! Whenever I see a squirrel I will remember him! My grandchildren, also Frog and Toad fans will be so happy to hear a new story! They might be inspired to write some more stories!

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Rev. Jonker’s church almost certainly skews toward disproportionate wealth and political influence relative to the median person in North America. The same can be said of most of the readers of this blog (and western Christianity generally) relative to the median person on the planet. We have agency. Using it is a matter of faithfulness.

    That second sentence is one the “readers of this blog” need to hear again and again. Daily. And is applies to the majority of our reformed congregations. We let ourselves off easily saying we have little or no impact. Nicht wahr! (not true). Most of us are just too busy to be bothered doing the hard work of social justice. Write your law on our hearts, dear Lord.

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