The Ripple Effects of an Environmental Lent

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Photo: Robert Gottfried

For many Christians Lent, a period of preparation for remembering the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, is a time when we strive to identify and change those attitudes and behaviors that limit God’s light in our lives. During this time we stress fasting, almsgiving and service as ways to further this process. One way to grow this Lent, whatever our religious persuasion, would be to broaden our focus. What about an environmental Lent?

At this time of year the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee is stripped bare. With a few exceptions such as mountain laurel, the trees and shrubs have shed their leaves, exposing their branches and the bones of the earth below. The sun’s light, which once had difficulty reaching the forest floor, now streams through with startling clarity, exposing sinkholes once hidden by luxuriant foliage. If the trees hadn’t dropped their leaves, we wouldn’t rejoice in the spring wildflowers that burst forth when the sun warms the earth in February and March. These wildflowers take advantage of the strong sunlight to flower and reproduce before the trees’ leaves re-emerge and block the flow of energy. When the forest canopy strips itself bare, it makes room for other members of the community to thrive.

In praying about what I should do for Lent I have decided that I particularly need to focus on letting go of the desire to control. My parents raised me to be responsible. I follow through when people ask me to do things. The down side is that I fear dropping one or more of the many balls I seem to be juggling. So, I make lists and constantly fret about keeping things under control and how other people affect my getting  things done. However, once I realize that I’m not the center of the universe, I turn my attention to others. When I realize that God can make the most of both my successes and failures and trust God to do so, I relax. Then I find that I see others far more clearly and appreciate and respect them for who they are. I find I love them, and they respond accordingly. When I strip myself bare of my desire to control, I provide an opening for the light of God to hit the ground of my existence and my relationships with others blossom.

There are other forms of control, however, that the signs of our times call us to acknowledge. In one of the great readings for Lent the prophet Isaiah proclaims,

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn…(58:6-8a)

God wants more than rituals. God asks us to create openings for others, releasing those in bondage so that they, too, can prosper in the light of God’s goodness and provision. God consistently calls us to help the most defenseless and weakest in society, to strip ourselves of those things that bar others from a dignified life.

Maybe it’s time to reconsider who in our community are in most need. When I think of the most defenseless around me today, I see the refugees, the war weary, and the unborn, … and salamanders, aquifers, and wildflowers. We all too often forget that in God’s eyes we and the land are one community, that God loves all of creation, not just humans. So, who are the oppressed, widows and orphans? They include animals whose habitat has been bulldozed, mountains leveled so that we might have electricity, and oceans we have despoiled with our garbage. These, too, cry out for justice, but we don’t hear them unless we truly have ears that hear. All too often only God hears their cry because we, as individuals and a society, believe we’re the center of the universe .

Perhaps as a result we should consider some alternative fasting, almsgiving and service. What about turning down the thermostat this winter so that we burn less coal? Might we try to buy food from farmers who protect streams, soil, and wildlife? Could we walk more and drive less? The point would be not just to “reduce our environmental impact,” but to provide an opening so that others might live and thrive. We could decide to give alms to a land trust, community garden, or watershed watchdog group. Or, we could volunteer to remove exotic invasive plants from an ecosystem restoration project. If we strip ourselves of the desire to dominate nonhuman creation so that we might be comfortable and live the way we want, God’s light would start to reach those we have been shading out. We might find that nonhuman creation starts to speak to us more clearly and that we see God’s glory more fully in the world around us. We might find, too, that we experience God’s love more deeply and radiate it to others. It sounds like a win-win, doesn’t it?

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Author: Robert "Robin" Gottfried

Director, Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee: The University of the South, and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Sewanee. Contemplative Christian, musician, blogger for the Huffington Post on religion and environment, and hiker living on the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee.

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