Fossil-fuel fast: the ultimate Lenten discipline?
Credit: Mahkeo via Unsplash

So this time of year the question of “What did you give up for Lent?” often comes up in Christian circles. Chocolate? Meat? How about fossil fuels?

Giving up one’s car and electricity may be quite a Lenten sacrifice, but it was a discussion had over the past weekend at the annual Goshen College Conference on Religion and Science that I was lucky enough to attend in Goshen, Indiana.

Let’s be honest: breaking our addiction to fossil fuels is pretty difficult to contemplate, let alone implement. Pass me that chocolate donut now please…

What could a fossil fuel fast look like though? Would one take public transit more? Turn down the thermostat? Be more conscious of the light switch when leaving a room? Buy LED lightbulbs?

As conference attendees our task was to talk about our disciplinary solutions to global warming in small discussion groups, which in my case included a writer, artist, educator, philosopher, science communicator and an ecology professor. Even in an hour-long dialogue, we still didn’t get a chance to get down to specifics as we were pondering ways of making an impact via our own individual disciplines and how those disciplines just like the parts of the body of church come together as Apostle Paul writes in Corinthians 1.

We also had a lot to ponder throughout this conference, titled “Christians, Climate and Culture: Relationships, Tensions and Resolutions.” The speaker was Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University, who is an atmospheric scientist whose research focuses on developing and applying high-resolution climate projections to understand what climate change means for people and the natural environment. She is also an evangelical Christian who and a pastor’s wife.

Responding to the global warming skeptics, she said, “It’s real, it’s us, and yes we really have checked,” adding that many remain critical of the science behind climate change despite the facts and figures presented.

She points to a website called Skeptical Science, which looks at the skeptics’ arguments against climate change and debunks them.

Hayhoe has worked with PBS digital studios to produce 35 videos on global warming that are free for use in church and school settings.

Then she points to a third resource on the science of climate change which is the National Climate Assessment Report, which she also worked on in 2017.

Still the question just kept coming up of what an adequate response in the pews would look like?

An Episcopal church in California, Trinity Church in Menlo Park, recently focused on what it means to be a “follower of Jesus in this time of ecological crisis.”

Rev. Matthew Dutton-Gillett writes that as part of the church’s “Reclaiming Eden” climate change initiative that on Holy Wednesday on April 17 the church will hold a Tenebrae service for the Earth. Tenabrae is a special worship service where candles are extinguished in succession, leaving the sanctuary in complete darkness. It is held in the three days leading up to Easter.  

But even Dutton-Gillett writes it is easy to feel overwhelmed with so many facets of the ongoing ecological crisis.

Hayhoe reminded attendees of the Goshen conference that hope needs to be part of the conversation regarding climate change.

She said that water, air, a safe place to live, food, and the beauty of nature provides us all that we ever need and it is no surprise since it was created by the greatest gift giver ever — God.

She rightly asks why, as research points out, don’t we think climate change matters to our daily lives? A Google search of global warming offers us up an image of a lonely polar bear floating on an ice sheet rather than the destruction in the aftermath of the powerful storm that recently hit Mozambique or even Hurricane Katrina.

Perhaps action speaks louder than words or images, when we reflect on an appropriate response in caring for creation.

A number of ELCA congregations are taking action with the hope of having an impact during Lent.

As detailed in this month’s Living Lutheran, dozens of congregations in the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod have decided to go on a single-use plastics fast. Each week a different item is on the list — shopping bags, straws, water bottles and food wrappers are all on the list.

Now while it may seem late to pick up a “new” Lenten discipline, perhaps the idea that came out of discussion group is more appropriate – a daily Lenten discipline.

No matter how one might approach it, there are still plenty of ideas out there on how to make a difference whether it is for Lent or in preparation for Earth Day on April 22. If you still feel stumped on how one person can make a difference, a website — The Drawdown — offers 100 solutions to reverse global warming. Even one action has an impact after all.


Susan Barreto


Susan is an author with a long-time interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology’s online magazine. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member for the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our Bodies Are Selves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.

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