Category: Pondering Peace

A Time for Prayer and Fasting

We will soon begin the Season of Lent – that season of the church year that prepares us for Holy Friday and then the celebration of Easter.  In many ways, it is a somber time of year, beginning with Ash Wednesday when we are encouraged to reflect on sin and mortality while receiving ashes in the sign of a cross.  It is a time for prayer and reflective consideration of our human condition, our sin, and its consequences. It is a time for repentance, for changing our direction, and realigning our lives so that they more authentically reflect how God intends for us to live.  It is a time to let go of attachments getting in the way of our relationship with God and to open up space for deeper communion. In Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson reminds us that in the early church, Lent was regarded as a spiritual spring, a time when the soul’s life can be renewed as it centers itself more fully in God.

While not eagerly embraced by many American Protestant churches today, fasting has traditionally been practiced during Lent. In the Old Testament, fasting was an expression of mourning but also occurred at times of threatened loss in the face of a national crisis.  It was often a penitential act that physically expressed inner contrition and repentance, with a turning away from sin and a turning toward God.  In the face of imminent destruction, such as in Esther 4 and Jonah 3, fasting was a way of humbly calling on God for deliverance. Isaiah 58 emphasizes that the physical act of fasting alone is not enough.  To be acceptable to God, fasting must be accompanied by just and merciful action that brings freedom to the oppressed and relief to those in need.  Fasting was also utilized as a means of spiritual preparation for faithfully serving God, as when Jesus fasted in the wilderness before embarking on his public ministry.

Although unacknowledged by many, we are now facing a crisis that threatens many forms of destruction. I therefore suggest that we consider this season of Lent and its practice of fasting with an eye towards the climate crisis we are facing. Certainly, we are reminded of our human frailty and mortality in the face of intensified weather events and the existential threat confronting humanity.  This situation also exposes the many tentacles of societal sin tightly wrapped around us from which we seem unable to escape and which draw us into participation.  Was it not greed and the allure of wealth’s power and comfort that caused fossil fuel companies to hide the results of their own early research showing that burning fossil fuels would disrupt the climate?  Was it not deception and self-centeredness that caused them to engage in a disinformation campaign to discredit and cast doubt on the warnings of climate scientists?

The burning of fossil fuels has benefited us in many ways.  It energized the industrial age, enabled much of our country’s development, and can be credited with helping to make us the wealthiest of nations, with many of us in the middle class living in significant comfort and luxury compared to the vast majority of people in the world.  In the process, our country, with four percent of the world population, is responsible for nearly a quarter of all the carbon dioxide that has been historically emitted and that drives climate change.  In report after report, climate scientists have warned us of the consequences.  And yet as a nation, our emissions continue to go up.  And as individuals, most of us continue to live a lifestyle heavily dependent on fossil fuels.  In part, we don’t want to change because it is easiest and most comfortable not to.  In part, we are so entrapped that we participate in and benefit from this situation, even when we want to live differently.  Consider the ubiquitousness of plastic, a fossil fuel product.  It is almost impossible and takes incredible effort to buy what one needs in this society while trying to avoid the use of plastic.  The same is true in almost every facet of our lives.  Greenhouse gas emissions are connected with much of what we buy and consume, how we travel, how we heat and power our homes, and so much more.

Lent is a somber time to reflect on these things – on the contemporary human condition, sin, and the consequences for all those that inhabit the earth.  But the season of Lent is more.  It is a time to repent – to turn away from that which destroys and to become more aligned in our lives with God’s original calling for humanity to be caretakers of the earth.   Perhaps one way to start is to engage in what is called a carbon fast during Lent.  This is a spiritual practice that honors God’s creation by changing aspects of our lives to reduce carbon emissions. There are many ways to do this.

One way would be to utilize a Lenten Carbon Fast calendar, which includes inspiration to care for creation, information about how to reduce emissions, and challenges to take action in various aspects of life.  Here are several 2023 Lenten Carbon Fast calendars that have been developed by a United Methodist church, a Catholic church, and a chapter of Interfaith Power & LightClimate Stewards USA offers a weekly email with a carbon fasting challenge for different parts of our lives.  One can also focus on just one or a few ways to reduce carbon emissions throughout the forty days of Lent.

Traditional fasting involves refraining from food, or certain foods, for a certain amount of time, and food can be the focus of a carbon fast as well.  Meat, particularly beef and lamb, are significant greenhouse gas emitters due to the release of methane.  In addition, 80% of deforestation is due to clearing land to graze (especially cattle) or raise feed crops for animals.  Refraining from eating meat during Lent would be significant carbon fast that could also be an experience of a more peaceful form of eating. Other possibilities related to food are refraining from dairy products, avoiding transportation emissions by eating locally grown food, reducing food waste, or refraining from eating beef on just one or two days each week.

One could focus on other areas of life to reduce energy use from fossil fuel sources. Some examples are turning down the thermostat, taking shorter showers, driving less, avoiding air travel, reducing plastic use, and not buying new clothes (especially with polyester).  While a carbon fast is a commitment for six weeks, it will also hopefully be an experience that prepares us for ongoing lifestyle changes with a lighter carbon footprint.

Many in the climate movement try to avoid speaking of sacrifice and focus more on the benefits of changes that need to be made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  There is wisdom in this, both because there are tremendous benefits and because few of us are attracted to sacrifice.  However, as people of faith, the spiritual practice of fasting is a reminder that faithfulness to God does involve restraint of some desires and following God’s will at times involves sacrifice.

Theologian Sallie McFague addresses her book Life Abundant to the task of exploring a theology appropriate for 21st century North Americans in light of the fact that our consumerism is contributing greatly to the degradation of the planet and the growing gap between the rich and the poor.  She suggests as that what is needed is “an ecological theology of liberation, one that can free us from insatiable consumerism and, as a result, liberate others, including the natural world, for a better, healthier life.” (33) She calls on us to embrace a cruciform mode of life.  “Christian discipleship in our time, if it is to express love for God and for the earth, must be one of self-limitation, sacrifice, and sharing so that the neighbors, all God’s creatures, might flourish.” (23).  She also calls on communities of faith to help create a paradigm change is our basic sense of what the good life is and to share visions of the abundant life that are sustainable and just to replace that being promoted by consumerism.

A carbon fast will involve some sacrifice, but it will be one small step towards living into a vision of a more just and sustainable world and participating with God in its creation.

Rev. Ruth Rosell, Ph.D.
Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence
Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology Emerita
Central Seminary, Shawnee, KS