A few years ago I was standing next to a colleague preparing for Sunday church. Someone had just come in and asked us, as the leaders of the service, to ‘pray for rain’ for farmers who, at that stage, were experiencing a protracted drought. Now while I generally encourage people to pray for whatever they want, my colleague was insightful when he later quipped to me, ‘rather than praying for rain we ought to be praying for repentance’. He’d hit the nail on the head in the sense that prayer is really, first and foremost, about changing the human mind and heart rather than trying to change the mind of God (as if God arbitrarily interferes with nature anyway).
Ash Wednesday, celebrated this week on 22nd Feb, is the formal beginning of the 40 day Christian season of Lent, with a focus on repentance, fasting and personal change of life. There’s a common misunderstanding that to repent is all about feeling terribly guilty and (metaphorically) beating one’s self up. Furthermore the nature of ‘sin’ gets reduced to personal/private morality (‘naughty’ things that I do, in the quaint language of the old English Book of Common Prayer). It’s easy to forget that the deeper understanding of ‘sin’ in Christian tradition (also clearly articulated in the Book of Common Prayer) is about a profound rift in relationship – in the fabric of relationship between humans, God and earth. In Christian thought, all other ‘sins’, whether of commission or omission, can be tracked back to loss of relationship – a lack of caring about the source of our life, our relationships with other people, and our relationship as humans with the earth (out of the ‘stuff’ of which we are created).
To ‘repent’ is not so much to feel guilty and stop eating chocolate for a few weeks, but to have a radical change of mind – to turn around and orient ourselves correctly to the true nature of things. For Christians, to ‘turn to Christ’ is to turn to one who completely empties himself, in love, towards others – to have communal concern over self-concern. Hence sin, and repentance, is a deeply communal and justice based process. I believe that we in the church need to spend less time hammering on about issues of private morality (not that these are unimportant) and spend a lot more attention recalling ourselves to the far more challenging issues of communal justice and responsibility. This of course leads us on a direct course to, amongst other issues, how we care for the planet .
This is precisely the point being made by the many church leaders who made climate a key ‘repentance’ issue for Ash Wednesday (22/2/12) services in English churches. As Archbishop Rowan Williams has said, “For the Church of the 21st century, good ecology is not an optional extra, but a matter of justice. It is therefore central to what it means to be a Christian.” To which is added, by the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, “In the 21st century in an interconnected world, practising love of neighbours means that we are committed to mitigate the effects of climate change which will fall disproportionately on the poor and vulnerable in the world and those least able to adapt to rising temperatures and sea levels.”
My hope is that Lenten reflections in churches might be raised to a higher level of conversation. Since repentance always starts with an honest facing up to reality we might begin by standing by our brothers and sisters in the scientific community who help us to see what’s actually going on. We must speak out against outrageous and typically uninformed attacks on scientists. Having heard the honestly presented data, we must act. For example, a great Lenten ‘discipline’ would be to calculate our household (personal households as well as churches) carbon and environmental footprints and take some significant actions towards reducing our footprints – there are a number of on-line calculators to help with this. Being in Perth I have used the ‘Carbon Neutral’ web site to help me get a handle on our family’s energy consumption.
Taking this kind of action gives a new dimension to the practice of ‘fasting’. It means not just fasting from food (which is good for body and soul) but also fasting from our typically lavish, and immoral, consumption of energy. Whilst this process is, more than likely, going to require personal financial investment (also good for the soul), the process doesn’t have to be about misery – in fact it can be a fun and energising household project for families. For example, simply taking to the bike and public transport instead of the car opens up all kinds of possibilities, from physical fitness to having the time to read new books. The possibilities are only limited by our own creativity. Happy repenting!