Thursday, March 6, 2014

Revisiting the Habakkuk Response

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
   and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
   and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
   and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
   I will exult in the God of my salvation.
Habakkuk 3:17-18

When I read today’s Daily Office lessons, the lesson from Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:1-18) helped me get farther into the spiritual re-centering that we experience during Lent.

While it’s easy to despair when we get past our tendency to denial and allow ourselves to really see what is happening to the earth – or more particularly, to our biosphere – as global temperatures rise, dwelling in despair is not a Christian response. It may be hard for others who hear about climate change only in passing to understand, but those of us with a special interest in environmental issues have an awareness that we are in a very grave situation. Past posts have pointed to several specific concerns. Two pieces of information, though, may be enough to explain why despair might be a temptation:

1) The Keeling Curve graphs concentrations of carbon dioxide, a major heat-trapping greenhouse gas, in our atmosphere. We know that a little wine is pleasant and may even have some health benefits, but excessive amounts can make us sick and even produce death from alcohol poisoning. In the same way, carbon dioxide is necessary to plant growth, but excessive amounts result in warming that harms the entire biosphere. In 800,000 years of geological records, the earth did not exceed 350 ppm of carbon dioxide until the 1980’s. Last year we exceeded 400 ppm for the first time ever. These graphs make clear the degree of the excess of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.

2) In our current national and global political climate, the only proposals to limit carbon pollution are too little and too late. We simply do not have the political will to make big changes soon enough to make a significant difference. Anything we can do is good, of course, as decreases in carbon pollution can mitigate global warming and perhaps buy us some more time, but since we are negotiating not with a human enemy but with the laws of physics and chemistry, token efforts or halfway measures aren’t very effective. We have already set off feedback loops like the melting of the Arctic sea ice so that warming will continue even if we were to immediately make impossibly deep cuts in our emissions of greenhouse gases.

These two things together are enough to bring great discouragement if not despair.

But as I read Habakkuk this morning, I remembered writing an earlier post, The Habakkuk Response, in June of 2011. That piece started off talking about a report about the rate at which marine ecosystems are deteriorating, a report that talked about a very real possibility of entering a phase of mass extinction of marine life.

That piece ended, though, with some encouraging words. They are encouraging not because they say we can make the laws of physics and chemistry disappear or suddenly jolt the world’s leaders into a radical shift in perspective and values that would allow them to get to work on solving the greatest challenge we have ever faced. They are encouraging because of the reminder of who we are and whose we are. Here is the ending to that post:

I read something else this week, an interview from Christianity Today called The Joyful Environmentalists: Eugene Peterson and Peter Harris. In it, Peter Harris talks about the difference between their work – work done “in response to who God is” -- and the work of secular environmentalists. Noting that environmentalists who believe they’ll be able to save the planet may easily get “exhausted and disillusioned and depressed”, Harris goes on to say:
If, on the other hand, you do what you do because you believe it pleases the living God, who is the Creator and whose handiwork this is, your perspective is very different. I don't think there is any guarantee we will save the planet. I don't think the Bible gives us much reassurance about that. But I do believe it gives God tremendous pleasure when [God’s] people do what they were created to do, which is care for what [God] made. 
The idea of doing what we can to care for the earth out of a joyful response to the Creator resonates with the verses near the end of Habakkuk. Though the crops have failed and the livestock is gone, says Habakkuk, “yet I will rejoice in Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” The Habakkuk response suggests a spiritual path to help us avoid despair and do the work of creation care as well as we possibly can in the difficult years ahead.

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