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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Accentuate the Positive
distributed 3/12/04 - ©2004

There is a shift taking place in how people are thinking about Lent.

A long-standing tradition for this pre-Easter season has been the discipline of "giving something up" -- chocolate, TV, or (hopefully) something more personal and significant. Part of that tradition, I'm sure, comes from the association between the 40 days of Lent and Jesus' 40 days of fasting and prayer in the wilderness.

In recent years, some churches have suggested a different Lenten practice, one of "taking on something." Rather than a sacrifice or denial, this newer approach looks for the affirmation of a positive practice. Take on a new prayer discipline, volunteer service, or time with the family.

Both of these approaches honor the special character of Lent. Both of them provide helpful pathways for deepening our spirituality. Both approaches call on us to make practical, behavioral choices about our faith commitments.

But the two approaches have a very different feel. There's a big difference between "giving up" and "taking on," between rejecting and affirming. How people respond to this season of the church year -- what they do, and what they get out of it -- may be strongly shaped by which of these two approaches they take.

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Actually, I have to confess that my thoughts about the relative merits of sacrifice and affirmation are only partly shaped by Lent. I've also been prodded in my ponderings by the arrival of the some really wonderful spring weather here in Denver.

With warm and sunny days, I've given fresh thought to how I get around town. Do I drive, or pick some other form of transportation?

For a variety of ecological and sociological reasons, I know that less driving is good. In the Lenten language, though, do I try to "give up" some of my driving, or do I "take on" other ways of getting around? Which approach to choosing is most convincing to me, and to others?

The personal car is by far the predominant means of transportation in the US. Most of our cities are structured in such a way that driving is almost essential for our daily lives. When driving is that pervasive, it makes sense to stress "giving it up." Driving is so "normal" that a person usually has to make a conscious choice to do anything else.

But precisely because driving is so pervasive, so convenient, so normal, cutting back on driving will feel like a sacrifice, a denial, a burden. And while sacrifices may, at times, be good for our spirituality, they are rarely good motivators for behavioral change.

To encourage new ways of living and acting, it is probably helpful to "accentuate the positive" (as the old song says). Don't try give up what you dearly love, but choose what you most want for yourself and your community. Don't "give up driving" but "affirm biking and walking."

In contrast to the advantages of the automobile, however, the joys of other forms of transportation can seem rather abstract. Walkers and bikers get exercise, and quiet time. They participate in creating a cleaner and healthier community. But is the tug of those good things as strong as the convenience of the car?

That's where the spring weather really helped me out this week. This week, I got a powerful taste of what I hope for, and the abstract became much more attractively real.

Tuesday of this week was utterly glorious in Denver. Clear blue skies, 72 degrees, and just a touch of a breeze. On that afternoon, my route walking home from a meeting took me across the campus of the University of Denver. The various lawns and plazas of the campus were jammed with students -- and quite a few faculty and staff, I might add -- sunning, studying, socializing, and playing.

As I crossed the campus, I bumped into a friend and colleague who is doing theological studies in eco-feminism. We hadn't talked in many months, and the sociable spirit of the campus made it that much easier to pause and to catch up on our various endeavors.

While Celeste and I were talking, along came another colleague, an environmental sociologist on the University faculty, who I hadn't seen in close to a year. The conversational pair easily became a trio as my two friends met each other for the first time, and we talked of the shared interests bind us together.

As we stood in the middle of the sidewalk, I couldn't shake the persistent thought: We're only having this wonderful fellowship because all of us are out walking today.

Any one of us walking would be good on a personal level. But having crowds of people out of their cars created a different reality. We put ourselves in a place where other people were walking, and so it became possible to meet up with friends.

Tuesday afternoon's warm weather created a different sort of community, a distinctly pedestrian setting. I got a vivid glimpse of a less car-centered society, and it was deeply attractive.

I may give up driving to help minimize global warming. I'll choose to walk any day if I can find that sort of vibrant and joyous community.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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