Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday: Speaking the Uncomfortable Words

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

On Ash Wednesday, many of us go out of our way to get to church so we can hear or say these words that declare our mortality. They are not comforting words, but they are honest words. They tell the truth we all know but seldom articulate. We know that the way to a deeper appreciation of the wonder and joy of Easter resurrection begins with this clear reminder of the way things are: we are mortal, made of dust, and utterly dependent on God for life now and after the death of our present bodies. 

The passage we read on Ash Wednesday from Isaiah (Isaiah 58:1-12) might also make us a bit uncomfortable. God says that the sort of fast that God chooses isn’t a traditional fast; it isn’t practicing false humility, but it’s doing something bold: loosing the bonds of injustice, freeing the oppressed, feeding and clothing the hungry and giving them shelter. 

Different people take different paths for Lenten discipline. Different stages of life and especially different stages of the faith journey call for different practices. Anything that helps us repent of “our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 268) is appropriate for a Lenten discipline, and especially so as the gap between what climate scientists expect us to experience this century and what we are doing to either mitigate that or prepare for it seems to grow greater every year. 

Once again this year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ offers the option of a “carbon fast”, a calendar with a different action each day to help us become more conscious of our energy use and more conscientious about our stewardship.  Another option is a simple practice of spending some time outdoors every day just looking and listening and reconnecting to God through reconnecting with God’s creation. [See Lent in God’s Holy Creation]

Another practice to consider adopting this Lent resonates with the truthful but sometimes uncomfortable words of Ash Wednesday: we could simply speak out loud about climate change. People are uncomfortable talking about climate change. After all, we are uncomfortable talking about our own mortality, and if climate change continues under the “business as usual” scenario that seems to be all our political and business leaders can muster, we are talking about ecocide, about the death of the biosphere that supports and sustains all living things on our planet. Speaking the truth — just saying the words — requires some boldness and courage in most settings. There is an unwritten, unspoken, assumption that climate change, like death, is not something to acknowledge in polite company. It doesn’t need to be argumentative or in people’s faces; it is often enough to say, “I’m concerned about climate change.”

In a completely secular setting, Bill Nye (the Science Guy) recently talked about climate change on MSNBC and asked that television journalists “just say ‘climate change’”. In this clip, you hear him say, “People ask me all the time ‘What can I do about climate change?’ Just talk about it. If we were talking about it, we would raise awareness and we would get to work.”

There is even more reason for Christians to talk about climate change. Just as we must take an honest look at our personal mortality in order to appreciate God’s gift of life both now and eternally, we must take an honest look at climate change in order to realize the precarious and precious nature of our biosphere. We must take an honest look at climate change in order to be grounded in the truth that can give us the sense of urgency to act boldly to keep the worst possible scenarios from unfolding. The Hebrew prophets knew that the work of God’s people was the work of the restoration or repair of a just and beautiful creation. The work of the church in this century must include the work of talking about climate change and advocating for climate stability. If we neglect this work at this critical point of human history, and if we neglect our brothers and sisters who already suffer displacement, hunger, or increased poverty and violence because of the effects of climate change, our fast days and our claims to be praying to God in humility are meaningless.