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.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lent in God's Holy Creation

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.