Tuesday, March 11, 2014

eco-lent: week 1, day 6, what does plastic have to do with lent?

I can't say that I'm a major expert on what Lent means, because coming from a Quaker tradition, I was an adult before I ever heard the term. But, according to the all-knowing Wikipedia (just don't tell my students I'm citing it as a source):
The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer [for Easter] through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial.
My lenten practice is to spend time each day of Lent focusing on a weekly eco-challenge from the Northwest Earth Institute's book, "A World of Health: Connecting People, Place & Planet."As far back as I can remember, I've felt a deep sense that the God in whom I put my faith and trust is a God of love--in fact IS love, embodies love, through the person of Jesus and through us. Love isn't just a nice feeling, but it's an intentional act of choosing to live in right relationship with those around us. I've had a hard time, however, going from this macro-level down to the particulars. What does it mean to put this kind of just-love into action? When I can see so many areas of injustice in the world, how do I keep myself from feeling paralyzed? How do I gather the courage to take a tiny step in the direction of a more just world?

In the past few years my leadings have centered around caring for the Earth. This is the place that is put in our care. If we take the creation story in Genesis seriously, God created everything and called it good. God delighted in each and every new aspect of creation, and encouraged it all to flourish, even before human beings came on the scene. God told the fish, birds and even the sea monsters to "be fruitful and multiply" on the fifth day, while human beings were created on the sixth day of the story. (I think this was pointed out to me in Ellen Davis' Scripture, Culture & Agriculture.) It seems to me that we as people are often getting stuck on ourselves, wanting ourselves and our people to be special in a way that others are not. While this is true, it's not completely true: each of my kids is special to me in a different way, but not one more than the other. In Amos 9:7, God reminds the Israelites that they are special, but not exclusively so:
Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?
Yes, God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and chose them for the special task of bringing forth the Messiah into the world, but other than that, they're not really any more special than God's other children.

I wonder if this is true for us and the rest of creation. Yes, God cares about us, and we are chosen for the particular task of caring for the rest of this planet. But we aren't any more special to God than everything else.

How does that feel? To me that stings a little. I want to be special. I want human beings to have a special place in God's heart, to be the exclusive species that truly matters to God--just like the people of Israel wanted to be God's special tribe and nation. And we ARE special to God, as the caretakers of God's beloved creation.

The problem is, we're not doing a very good job. We think we're so special that we can use the entire creation for our own benefit and comfort.

So for me, letting go of this need to be special, of this sense of entitlement to use the produce of the Earth for my own needs first, paying attention to the ways my actions are impacting the Earth and everything in it--these are particularly lenten reflections and actions. I'm praying to God about how I can live as a more faithful follower: how I can love God and my neighbor as myself more purely. I hear that I need to care for the Earth. I recognize my own "sin" in this situation: my misuse of the world's resources, my attitude of entitlement that expects to have everything I want, when I want it. I repent of these actions and attitudes, and I live out self-denial by giving up some of my comforts.

Self-denial is one of the most difficult ones, for me. For one thing, it smacks of holier-than-thou martyr-like ideology, where I feel more pious than everyone else who isn't doing this holy act of self-denial. For another thing, women in particular have been encouraged in Western culture to be the ones who deny themselves constantly, for the sake of their family and community. I don't want to fall into the trap of a self-denying woman who doesn't stand up for herself and her own legitimate needs.

At the same time, self-denial is difficult because of our culture that expects everything, more, better, faster, stronger, always MORE. I find myself falling into this trap. I want everything in my life to be more convenient, more efficient, even a better use of energy and resources. And I want it NOW! I don't want to have to practice self-discipline or delayed gratification. I so often live into my culture's tyranny of the "now," where waiting is simply unacceptable, and going without something that is desired is some form of cruel and unusual punishment.

So in this lenten journey so far this week, I've realized how addicted I am to plastic, to the convenience of something that is cheap, easy to use, doesn't break, and gets thrown away or recycled so I can get the next "now" thing. I'm addicted to the disposable culture, and my home shows it.

It's painful to recognize my complicity in this system that creates injustice--this world where plastics and people get thrown away with little regard, where we wage wars over the resources to make plastic, where the livelihoods of people the world over are based on an imaginary economic system of stocks that demand ever more and larger markets, and that grind people to death like so many plastic parts.

Not only is this a systemic issue, but this is an issue that affects my very own body and health, along with the health of my family. My laziness about not looking critically at the food and food packaging system means that my kids have been eating off dishes that are leaching harmful chemicals into their bodies their whole lives. We have laws against parents smoking in their homes. What about parents who microwave plastic dishes, or who make their kids hot drinks in plastic cups? I would not stand idly by and let my kids eat lead paint. How is this any different?

How much of my own ease and comfort, my own ability to have everything I want and to have it NOW, am I willing to give up for the sake of the health of this planet, put under my care? How much am I willing to give up for the sake of my children and their children, for my own health?

On the flip side, where's the line between penitential lenten self-sacrifice, and over-the-top paranoid anxiety that leaches life out of people just as surely as stressed plastics?

It's a work in progress, friends, but I'm grateful to have you along for the journey.

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