by Pastor Doug Kings
Last weekend we had a mini-holocaust behind our house. We live at one end of a small lake. We’ve been told it is spring fed and fairly deep, so it has fish, turtles, birds, and various aquatic plants. The shoreline of a home kitty-corner from us had become overgrown and harbored a lot of wildlife, but that came to an end on Saturday.
The house’s new owner has been trying unsuccessfully to flip it. Apparently, he decided clearing away the overgrowth to create a lake view would help its sales appeal (probably true). So a crew came in and cleared it all away, down to the dirt. Trees, bushes and other assorted plants and grasses were all removed and unknow numbers of birds and animals lost their homes and refuges.
It was very sad. Now the shoreline reminded me of pictures I’ve seen of clearcut areas in the Amazon and Indonesia. Until then, each morning before sunrise, I was greeted by a loud chorus of frogs. The following morning: silence. A cormorant who regularly perched on a dead limb looking in the lake for its next meal, now stood on the shore looking lost. Who knows how many small animals died, while others scrambled for new places to live.
I don’t want to demonize the house’s owner. He hadn’t bought a wildlife refuge. The house’s lake frontage had been neglected for several years and it was his right to clean it up. Nonetheless this sweeping act of destruction was heart breaking. It suddenly made vividly real the natural holocausts we know are going on around the world every day: making room for new housing developments here in Florida, beef cattle ranches in Brazil, farmland in Africa, airports and highways in China, and on and on.
Like my nearby homeowner, the people and companies carrying out these projects are not evil. The projects are responding to human wants. But there’s just one problem: human wants are limitless but our planetary home is not. The consequence is an ever expanding disaster. Episcopal priest and Arkansas native, Ragan Sutterfield, spells this out in a powerful essay, “The End of the World as We Know It.”
Death is a common reality for those who pay attention to the natural world. The death of landscapes, of species, of varied flourishing futures. The dying person here is not the planet itself; life in some form or other will go on. What is dying are the ecologies of abundance from which we humans have flourished. This is the period of the planet that we can honestly call Mother Earth, and she is dying, soon to give way to a planet that is far less nurturing and far less forgiving. And those of us who are living in these times must reckon with the reality that we are in a period of hospice.
Hospices are hard places to be. Death is a hard reality to face, personal or planetary. And as we face the death of the earth as we know it, many of us have been locked in that classic first stage of grief – denial.
What’s happening is hard for us fathom since the world has seemed endlessly bountiful. And now that it is obviously not, we keep looking for the bad guys responsible for the mess we’re in. But the cartoonist Walt Kelly got is right in his 1971 comic strip on the first Earth Day, when, looking at a trashed landscape, his main character Pogo says, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Intentionally or not, Kelly touched on deep theology here, for this is the—mostly misunderstood—message of the Bible and of Lent. Lent has typically been thought of as a time of feeling guilty and sad because we have offended God. Instead, it should be a wakeup call for all the ways we are hurting ourselves. We need to remember the scene in Luke when, carrying his cross to Golgotha, Jesus encounters a group of women wailing for him. He responds, ““Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.”
Just as the women could not save Jesus, so we cannot save our Mother Earth. But we can try to save ourselves, for the earth’s agony is a direct consequence of our lostness. There will be no scientific, technological, or political fix for the earth’s distress. That hope is part of our denial. Our planet is at its limit for how far it can be stretched to meet our insatiable demands. What has to change are those demands.
For millennia, spiritual teachers of every tradition, including the Bible, have said that we cannot find happiness in acquiring more stuff. Until recently, the consequence of ignoring such wisdom was our personal misery, though often spilling over to those around us. Now, however, the result of our endless accumulation is the misery of the planet and all its inhabitants.
If we were to take Lent seriously it would be to recognize that all our dilemmas, all our frustrations, all human suffering are ultimately spiritual in origin. It would be to take our life seriously as a spiritual quest, asking: who am I? what do I really want? how do I find real happiness and fulfillment? how do I live in harmony with everyone and everything around me?
For too long we have allowed the titans of culture, business and politics to answer those questions for us. But they’re not that smart, and now they’re screwing up really badly. We need to stop listening to them, and to the simplistic voice inside us that goes along with them saying, “Yes, that’s who you are! Yes, that’s what you want!” Instead, we need to search deeper within us, in our heart, for our true self, for our consciousness that unites us to eternity, and for a love that completes us, satisfies all our desires, and is with us always.
Blessings in your life and ministry.