For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.
(Ash Wednesday Litany of Penitence, The Book of Common Prayer)
As Lent begins, people who follow the news about climate change are waiting for the release later this month of the next part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 5th assessment report, this one about the impacts of climate change. A leak of the draft document suggests that the news will not be encouraging. Back in November, the New York Times published this article anticipating discussion of expected food shortages as the world warms.
Meanwhile, a state of emergency exists in the Marshall Islands as increasingly frequent and intense king tides have caused widespread flooding that has displaced over a thousand people.
Food shortages, floods, disappearing islands, and other effects of climate change are expected to have a huge negative impact on those who come after us. Our litany of penitence helps us name the sin of our waste and pollution and recognize the contributing factors of our inattention to the environment and our willful ignorance about the causes and effects of climate change.
We begin Lent by confessing our sins. Lent, however, is about both penitence and repentance. Once we have recognized and confessed our sins, the work of Lent is the work of turning ourselves around. The absolution following the Litany of Penitence uses the language of repentance: “that they may turn from their wickedness and live”.
Our Lenten disciplines, no matter how profound or perfunctory, are grounded in the idea of letting go of old, harmful ways and taking on something new that restores us to new life. Sometimes we give something up, sometimes we take on a particular new habit or activity that promises to deepen our spirituality or help us better serve in Christ’s name, and sometimes we simply follow a prescribed discipline or study that might help us better our understanding and find new ways to serve.
People who prefer the latter sort of discipline might consider following one of the calendars of activities that help us look at various aspects of environmental stewardship. There are several of these offered each year; one that is widely used is the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast offered by the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. This may be of special interests to families with school-aged children as a way to learn about how our actions affect the environment that sustains our lives. These calendars are also good tools for people who like a highly structured Lenten discipline with some daily variety.
Given the date of Ash Wednesday this year, though, I would propose a less structured discipline that is more doable in the lengthening days of early spring than in our usual more wintry start to Lent: going outside and looking around. Stroll or sit on a porch or putter in the garden. Take time to look and listen and enjoy. Watch the birds gathering nesting materials, see the cloud formations or the clearness of the sky, notice the spring flowers emerging from the ground and then blooming, look at the buds swelling on the trees.
To do this, we need to give up whatever else would usually fill that time. We also need to give up the idea that we need to do something – mow a lawn, play golf, raise our heart rate – in order to justify spending time outdoors. Whatever we give up, we will be taking on something new that can restore our own lives and the life of the living things around us.
Many of us have lost our connection to the outdoors, to our own habitats. Restoring that connection feeds our souls and deepens our connection to God the Creator. The simple act of going outside and looking around can deepen our spirituality in surprising ways, reawakening parts of our souls that are sometimes neglected.
The same practice forms us to be better able to serve in Christ’s name. Our world is hurting from our poor stewardship of the earth. The poorest people on earth are hurt first and worst by drought, floods, the spread of tropical diseases, and the effects of extreme weather events. Spending time outdoors reacquainting ourselves with the wonder all around us may cause us to remember the joy and love that runs through all of creation; we may find ourselves falling in love with the natural world all over again, or maybe even for the first time. Our compassion for the earth, for ourselves and other people, and for all living things grows stronger.
We care for what we love. If we love the part of God’s creation in which we live, we will be better stewards of the earth. And as our love and compassion break out of the confines of family and tribe, our compassion for those who suffer from pollution and global warming might also grow.
Going outside and looking around can help us to turn away from the wickedness of our lack of awareness and from the soulless activities with which we often fill our time. It can help restore us to a more abundant life and equip us to serve. And springtime in Nebraska offers a great opportunity to connect with God by connecting with God’s creation.
This is adapted from an article I wrote for the Lent edition of The Nebraska Episcopalian.