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Elijah kicks up a storm

A Christian view of climate change is to weigh up perceived threats but not to be paralysed by them. Prayer and activism should be the cutting edges of our concern.

Every festival we celebrate in this world has a dark shadow to it which it is possible to avoid if we choose to face the right way. Christmas causes hurt for recently broken homes; New Year’s Eve is painful for those who carry their sadness over from one year to the next; Mothering Sunday can be painful for the bereaved or infertile. The Harvest Festival - which in its current British form is only about a hundred years old - is the same as we consider the millions who go hungry today.


Awareness of this shadow does not mean we refrain from celebrating the goodness of God in creation. We have been touched deeply by his generosity, filled with delicious food and drink and awed by the wonder and intricacy of creation. This world has been given to us to enjoy by a God who deserves our acclaim. But we should not neglect those who have missed out on the harvest and there are a host of scriptures which enjoin us to meet their needs too.


It has been hard to avoid scientific stories in the media recently which pose worrying scenarios about the future. Within twenty years the world’s population is predicted to rise by a third. This is the most astonishing statistic when you consider how long we have been on this earth: an increase of two billion people in two decades. Predictions are not always accurate but no-one is under any illusion that a sudden and sharp rise in global population will put resources under enormous strain. In this scenario, demand for food would increase by fifty per cent; for water by thirty per cent; for energy by fifty per cent. Yet many of the projected scenarios on climate change suggest fewer available resources through desertification.


Two centuries ago Thomas Malthus predicted a coming global famine because existing agricultural practices were not sufficient to meet the growing population. The science changed and he was proven wrong. Famine in the modern world occurs for different reasons. Yet Malthus is back on the agenda today because of the population surge. This does not mean he will be right this time either, though the challenges are greater.

There is always a risk that we adopt one of three positions when thinking about this future. One is helplessness; another, uselessness; the third, carelessness. The first is to say that there is nothing we can do to prepare adequately for this impending future crisis, that it is already too late. The second is to deny there is a challenge at all because public bodies are always doom-mongering as a means of self-aggrandisement and should be ignored. The third is the dark, unspoken one that as this will not happen meaningfully in our lifetimes then it is another generation’s problem. Many would choose another position, one within which a Christian view can perhaps more clearly be formed. This is to weigh up perceived threats but not to be paralysed by them; to use our talents and to put our trust in God.


We do not own this world or any part of it, it belongs entirely to God and we must answer to him, which includes the legacy we leave for future generations. If we are despoiling it we cannot simply throw our hands up in the air in front of God and say there is nothing we can do about it. Thankfully he has gifted us with a conscience and with skill so we know what we should do and have the means to do it. Scientific advances have saved lives before and they can do so again. But in addressing the challenges that lie before us, people of faith should locate their fundamental trust in God, not in human beings.


Climate change is not a new concept. The epistle of James (5:16b-18) alludes to an event from Israel’s history when the prophet Elijah ‘prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest’. Elijah was locked in battle with the corrupt and faithless king Ahab whose policies were extinguishing the light of God on earth that Israel was called to witness to. The drought here was more a case of climate warfare as God sought to drag the nation back to its dependence on him. The Old Testament story itself does not suggest, as the epistle of James does, that Elijah prayed for a drought, just that he prophesied one.


Either way, this was an uncomfortable place for Elijah to be landed in. But it was his prayer that ended the drought in a dramatic encounter on Mount Carmel. He proclaimed to the king that he heard the ‘sound of rushing rain’ when the skies above were cloudless and the ground beneath was waterless. He prayed and nothing happened. He prayed again and nothing happened. Six times he prayed and nothing happened. Then on the seventh occasion his servant reported seeing ‘a cloud no bigger than a person’s hand rising out of the sea’. Elsewhere in scripture it says that faith is the conviction of things unseen. Elijah gives us a perfect example of this.


James’ slant on this is significant. He reminds his readers that Elijah ‘was a human being like us’ and yet his prayers could shake the earth. It is not just today that believers look back at the heroes of faith and think they could never replicate their feats. Believers felt like that even when the early Church was rocking and rolling with the power of God. If you’re like me you’ll be thinking by analogy: ‘yeah, Roger Federer is a human being like me but I think we all know who’d win over five sets’. We can’t help but place people who achieve extraordinary things in another, unattainable category, but when it comes to faith in God we are repeatedly encouraged by scripture to believe that God chooses and uses ordinary, plodding, unfit human beings to fulfil a divine destiny. Elijah himself was prone to defeatism, depression, anger and petulance - so we probably all have something in common with him.


I do not know what problems may be assailing you but I know someone who does and who has power to help in beautiful, rich and generous ways if only we can imagine with him our world taking a different, more graceful shape. The Baptist pastor F.B. Meyer once said: ‘the greatest tragedy of life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer’. Yet Elijah’s prayer for rain also shows us that it is not as simple as dashing off a prayer like a hurried, miss-spelt text message. The first prayer may appear to hit a ceiling and bounce back; and the second; and the third. But appearances are deceptive. It is entirely possible that the cloud had begun to form on Elijah’s first prayer but he could not see it. After all, he was a human being just like us.


And climate change today? It has been said of life that we should pray as if it all depended on God and work as if it all depended on us. Faith and science, prayer and activism: we have been gifted all we need. It’s what we celebrate at harvest.



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