Another great meditation by Lowell Bliss:
When are gas prices not gas prices? There’s a childhood joke about a door not being a door when it’s ajar, and so my question about gas prices can seem like a riddle, but the answer isn’t funny; it’s philosophical. Gas prices are not gas prices when we can turn them into a spiritual discipline.
Prices at the pump around here in Kansas have “reached” (i.e. the other direction for a change) $1.77 a gallon. That’s apparently the third lowest in the nation behind Oklahoma and Missouri. I’ve heard two sets of expert economists argue whether lower gas prices are good or bad for the U.S. economy.Low prices are apparently bad for the Russian economy, but good for the sanctions against Putin. For commuters, savings at the pump can essentially represent “a whole extra paycheck.” For many families they represented the green light to go ahead and visit Grandma for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. For one friend of ours, gas prices turned into tears. A single mom, she drove her infant son and her mother to Nashville for Christmas. After one gas station stop she climbed back behind the wheel, and her mom asked, “Why you crying?” Tears of joy, she had to explain. She had just filled her entire tank for less than $40, half of her previous average.
For anti-Keystone XL pipeline activists, low gas prices represent a campaign point. Tar sands oil dropped below the cost effective point mentioned by the State Department reports—just one more reason for President Obama and Secretary Kerry to reject the pipeline’s permit. But low gas prices also disincentivize walking, bicycle riding, carpooling, and mass transit. April 2008 was the first month in the history of climate change activism where automobile usage dropped across the nation, and with it, the amount of carbon emissions attributable to transportation. I wish we activists could have claimed credit, but actually April 2008 was the month where gas prices reached its first startling plateau of record highs. (I guess the law of supply and demand does signify.) Lower gas prices can be deadly—for those who must breath its pollutants, for those species which cannot adapt fast enough to climate change, for those Filipinos who got hit by another extreme weather event. But if it can be so deadly, why do lower gas prices feel so life-giving? And how, as one who cares for God’s creation, should we live with that dissonance?
Last October I was driving back from a vacation at Rocky Mountain National Park and perhaps I was primed to be philosophical. Hauling a forty-pound backpack up to 10,000 feet in cold temperatures made me very conscious of food-as-fuel. The whole trip was life-giving to my spirit, but would have been impossible if my beef jerky (i.e. a steer who had died) was not first life-giving to my body. I pulled off an exit on I-70 into a gas station, and began to fill the tank. Gasoline is based on death, right? Dead dinosaurs, animal- and plant-life had been liquefied over the millennia before being pumped out of the rock and refined for my use. But I liked what that gasoline going into my car’s tank would do for me. The previous tank had brought me up into the beauties of God’s creation; this next tank was going to reunite me with my beloved wife and kids. I felt thankful.
And that’s when the thought popped into my head that there is always a difference between “being thankful” and saying “thank you.” That difference is a pro-active discipline and the identification of an audience. My musings were probably primed by having been in among the trails of the Arapahoe and the Ute Indians, and by having seen mule deer, elk, and one lone bull moose. I thought about the Indian practice of having slain a deer, to lean over the carcass’s ear, and say words which honor the animal’s strength while thanking it for its sustenance. Modernists may roll their eyes, but when Nathaniel shoots an elk in the opening scene of the movie Last of the Mohicans, his spoken words of honor have always struck me as somehow fitting, even for us white men.
I wasn’t about to pray to the gas pump, nor speak words to a dead dinosaur. I prayed to the Creator God. “Thank you for what this gasoline will accomplish for me. I so badly want to be with my family again. I soberly recognize that this life for me does represent, in some part, death in your creation; that’s why it’s fitting that I bring these things to you.” And then I added some prayers of petition:
“Lord, hasten the day when I won’t have to use fossil fuels for life. Inspire the scientists, engineers, and governmental leaders and bring on the day of renewable energy. In the meantime, I commit myself, by your grace, to using the gasoline in this tank to honor you by where I go and what I do.”
And so, I propose a spiritual discipline for all who wish to join me. You are standing outside between your car and the pump, listening to the click, smelling the fumes. What are you doing anyway except mindlessly waiting? Use that time to reflect on what the previous tankful meant in your life. What life-giving plans do you have for the next tankful? Give thanks to God. Pray for the development of renewable energy. Commit yourself to using this next tankful for God’s glory and to better love those you visit or cart around.