Environmental Destruction, Technology, and the Season of Lent


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On a spring day in Minnesota I walked down to the lake to watch and to listen as I usually did at lunchtime. Then I heard it - the ice-bound lake groaning as the spring sun reached it for the first time. This memory speaks to me of a quandary we face today - although many of us want to live light on the earth, almost anything we do contributes to its destruction. I think the season of Lent offers us some hope.

Economists call this condition "technological lock-in" while theologians call it "institutionalized sin" or "structures of sin." Everything we do today involves waste, which we consider inevitable. We throw out the packages our food comes in. Our cars spew the waste products of combustion. Our factories produce byproducts that end up in our land, streams, and air. Microwave ovens wear out, so we throw them away. Every time we do anything we destroy part of creation by extracting resources from the ground or by returning wasted resources to the earth and air. Although I try very hard to be responsible in all my actions, I still have to drive to town, Skype with my far-flung children or fly to see them, wear clothes too often made from petroleum or pesticide-intensive cotton, eat frozen food, and heat my house. While I try to minimize my environmental impact, everyday I still exert a huge negative influence on the world around me. I am locked into ways of doing things in my everyday life that destroy others, regardless of my good intentions. I am locked into what religious leaders have condemned as "blasphemous behavior." The systems upon which our society depends have developed along lines that devalue nonhuman nature and, in the process, devalue the poor and helpless - but that's another story.

Like a frozen lake we are locked into a culture with a crust of behavior and beliefs that prevent us from being fluid and responsive to the world around us. It's a dismal picture. As the psalmist says, "There is not one person who has not sinned, not one." So what can save us? What can get us out of this predicament?

We might find guidance in a phrase I encountered a week or so ago in my daily reading:

Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning.

A few weeks ago I finished reading The Sixth Extinction, which basically provides a litany of human actions that have led to the demise of one species of plant or animal after another. Having read many such litanies, the book didn't particularly affect me. Then Lent began. About a week ago I was praying and out of the blue experienced a deep sadness. I long have felt sorrow and regret over our environmental and social destructiveness. However, when I came before God in quiet and openness, totally unexpectedly I felt deep sorrow over the violence we as a people and species have wreaked on others whether human or nonhuman, alive or inanimate. I now turned to God with real mourning.

God's light comes when we least expect it. It can melt our frozen hearts, even when we don't realize they are frozen. When that happens, we start to groan and the ice starts to melt. Lakes unfreeze one water molecule at a time. So do systems. If we as a people are to turn from destructive to life-giving ways, each of us must change our hearts. Even in this, we need God's help. When we truly start mourning what we have done, we are transformed. When we are transformed, warmed by a loving Light, we, too, can do surprising things. We become fluid and responsive just like the ice that once groaned on the lake.

The mourning leads to fasting - in this case a permanent fasting of intentional simple living. We live in structures of sin that lock us into seeking consolation and joy from things, instead of from satisfying relationships with people and nature. That endless seeking for happiness in things leads to endless buying, endless extraction and endless waste...endless destruction. We can choose life - by deciding, for example, to walk instead of drive, to buy locally produced or organic food if we are able, to turn off unneeded lights, or to forgo the latest iPhone. We can choose to "live simply, that others simply may live."

We need not despair. God can melt our personal and collective hearts and show us how to make a difference. We can practice the disciplines of trusting in God's guidance and of living in hope. After all, God made the world - God cares about it even more than we do. We just have to get out of the way.

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