In addition to my volunteer commitments to nature, I am also a lay preacher in the Episcopal church. This Earth Day I was asked to give a talk at Christ Episcopal Church in Owosso, MIchigan. I share it here as an expression of my particular spiritual view, but I recognize and appreciate other expressions from other religious traditions, or from those with no religious belief at all. The view are my own and do not represent any of the several nonprofit organizations I work with.
Rebirth is the word of Easter. The lesson from this season is that death is not final, that life renews itself. This message contradicts the linear way many of us lead our life: we are born, we grow up, things happen, life progresses in a line, maybe up, maybe down, but eventually we die and life ends. Nature teaches us something else. Life is a cycle. A tree grows through a season, it leafs out, fruit ripens and is plucked off, then the branches go barren, the tree seemingly dies, until the next spring when it is reborn with delicate buds. And the caterpillar that ate the leaves of the tree in summer, encloses in a hard shell in fall, waits the winter, and is reborn as a butterfly. We are all part of something greater than our own short lives.
Water too moves in a cycle: from rain, to runoff, to lake, to evaporation, to cloud to rain. Changing form, changing function. Nature, Easter, teach us that life is not linear, it is a circle. Rebirth, Renew. Recycle. This is the story of the world we live in, and the world we die in.
Today is Earth Day. Some churches call it Creation Sunday, or Good Seed Sunday. But Earth Day began as a political movement 42 years ago, and some now believe that the environment is a secular topic, or a policy issue, and thus we have no business addressing it in Church.
Faith and Nature. I think however that a reading of the bible shows that humanity’s relation to the environment is fundamental to the Christian religion. You don’t even have to read beyond the first sentence of the first chapter of the first book of the bible to see that environment and faith in God are tied together: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” You know the story. God created the world and separated land from water, and commanded the land to “put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind.” And God also said “let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly across the dome of the sky.” Our environment exists as a Divine act, and “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good.”
You know the second chapter as well: “the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man he had formed. . . The Lord God put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it.” We are not on this earth as a vactaion; we are here as stewards. The Earth, God’s creation, this Eden, is not ours, but it is ours to keep, to tend, to care for. And, if we are stewards of this Garden it will provide for us. The earth will feed us; but it is not a pantry shelf, or a fast-food restaurant; it is a garden: and we must work it, for the long term, if we are to be supported by it.
Some call this story a Creation Myth, and by “myth” they mean a falsehood, a fiction. But I believe that myths are stories which contain the deepest, unchanging truths, even if the details of the story cannot be substantiated. The Creation Myth contains a truth that our modern science has proven: our life depends on the health of the planet. We need clean air, and water, and food and all that the earth provides if we are to survive, be healthy, and thrive.
But nature provides us with more than a life support system. A continued reading of the Bible shows that nature is a central player in the stories and events that define our religion: The flood survived by Noah, who takes responsibility for all the creatures of the earth; the revelations that Abraham and Moses and Jesus receive while in the desert fully immersed in the endless sand and stars above; Jonah’s saving by a whale; the encounters with water, whether struck from a rock or the crossing of the Jordan or the baptisms performed by John; and Jesus’s final night, which he passes outside the great city in a garden, back again where we started.
These are but a few of the examples of how nature defines and informs our faith. I have not even touched on the Psalms and the glory of creation that inspires so many of them. We encounter God in nature. Job, when put to the test, retreats to the wilderness. His supposed friends ask him how he will find righteousness there; his answer: “ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you.”
Nature and Humanity. We are meant to be connected to nature, as part of our worship, as part of our calling, as part of our sustenance. But we have lost, or are losing, that connection; and we do so at our peril, both physically and spiritually. A book came out a few years ago called “Last Child in the Woods,” and it makes the compelling case that much of what troubles our youth–obesity, attention deficit disorders, lack of creativity, self-centeredness–can be traced to the decline in the amount of time children spend playing out of doors and exploring creation. The author, Richard Louv, writes this: “nature–the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful–offers something that the street or gated community or computer game cannot. Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity.”
And of course it is not just the young that can get this from nature. I realized in writing this that it has been too long since I have spent a sustained time in nature. And I realize that some of my own spiritual malaise, my preoccupations with certain tasks, my over-inflated sense of self, could be cured by a long hike rather than a long meeting or a day spent with a canoe paddle rather than a laptop. John Muir speaks to me today when he wrote 175 years ago to a friend from the Sierra “I wish you could come here and rest a year in the simple unmingled love-fountains of God. You would return with fresh truth gathered and absorbed from pines and waterfalls and deep-singing winds, and you would find that they all sang of fountain love just as did Jesus Christ.”
Stewardship. We get much from nature. What do we give back? How are we doing in a role as stewards of the Garden? Well the good news is that since the first Earth Day in 1970 we, as a people, have done some impressive things to clean up our air, remove toxic pollutants from our foods, protect endangered species, and save some precious natural places. In our community, we have significantly cleaned up the Shiawassee River thanks to the federal Clean Water Act and lots of local commitment. Here too we are doing a better job caring for the animals that enrich our lives as companions. And we all have more opportunities to eat healthier food and be more efficient in our use of fuel and energy, At DeVries Nature Conservancy and elsewhere we are creating places for kids, and adults, to get outside more easily.
We have learned a lot about the environment and our impact on the planet in the 50 years since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring (yes, it was 1962 when her groundbreaking book on the impact of pesticides came out). However, as we have gained more knowledge we have lost some of our motivation as the problems have become more difficult and more complex. Sending a check to The Nature Conservancy to buy a scenic forest is easy; protecting the Great Lakes from quagga mussels and asian carp is not. Banning DDT just took an act of Congress, but what we should do to control greenhouses gasses is not clear, even if Congress could tackle such a difficult and divisive issue.
Climate Change. At the risk of talking about such a politically charged topic, let me say a word about climate change, or global warming, as it is sometimes called. What we know for sure is this, there is much more carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere now than there was 50 or 100 or a 1000 years ago. Just as water moves in a cycle, so too does carbon: plants breathe in carbon dioxide and convert it to organic material; we use the food and wood they produce; if we burn the trees and other plants, carbon dioxide is returned to the atmosphere. But mostly, at least since creation, the plants just die, they decompose and the carbon returns to the soil. And in a timeframe only God can appreciate, after thousands of millennia, the decayed organic material is turned into fossil fuels; we burn them for heat and energy and transportation, and in so doing release the carbon back into the atmosphere.
Of course, since industrialization we have been burning the oil and coal and gas like there is no tomorrow and this is why there is today so much CO2 in the atmosphere today. And CO2 acts like a green house, letting in light but keeping in heat; thus our planet has warmed and out weather has gotten wacky. And since we haven’t fully figured out and weather and climate, making all the connections isn’t possible, so we debate the impacts of global warming.
I don’t know the answer to this problem; some people don’t think it’s a problem, and some deny it is even happening. I would argue that we as a nation, as a people, are not able to fully comprehend, much less address, this issue because we are thinking and talking about it only in political terms. To be sure there are political dimensions to this issue, but it is at root a spiritual issue. If we were think about climate change as a moral issue, and draw on our religious tools, and our scientific knowledge, to seek solutions, we might be able to begin to move toward an answer. Rather than partisan debates, the questions to ask are: what is our role in caring for Creation? Do we appreciate the gifts, the resources, we have been given and are we using them in a way that keeps this place healthy? Are we being responsible in our stewardship to those with whom we share this Garden? Will the goodness of the earth persist for the next generation and the generations after that?
Our Place in Nature. These questions come from looking at humanity as God’s children, the term John uses today in our reading. We are not apart from Creation, nor are we above Creation. If we ignore nature, we will neglect and abuse it, and this, as science tells us, will endanger our existence. Putting humanity above nature is the curse of the modern technological age, and in the last century we have been using nature as only an unconstrained consumer can. We have taken, and harvested, and eaten, and burned, and otherwise used up the fruits of creation at a startling, extraordinary rate.
As the writer Wendell Berry says “The problem with us is not only prodigal extravagance but also an assumed limitlessness. We have obscured the issue by refusing to see that limitlessness is a godly trait.” As humans, our lives have limits; only God is infinite and without boundary. To live, as we are living now, without regards to limits, is heretical, is disobedient of the command to be stewards, and it is sinfully presumptuous.
But just as we should not put ourselves above nature, nor should we put ourselves below nature. We don’t worship Creation. We worship God in Creation. If we see God as separate from nature, or if we imagine nature without God, then we get confused about our role. Our task is clear, our responsibilities are defined and unique. We are to be the caretakers of Creation. Not the consumers of nature. Yes, we can, and must make use of nature, but we must do so in a way that ensures not only the health and productivity of the garden, but also its long term sustainability. We need to plant, and weed, and grow, and harvest the garden. But we must also mulch, and plow, and fertilize the garden and ensure that there is clean water and air for the garden to thrive on. Our children and our children’s children, and all the children to come, need this garden too.
And this the point: we are part of a grand circle. Life is not linear. We are born and reborn, and at some point we will roll forward, we will recycle into something bigger than we can comprehend, something beyond time and place. But here and now we occupy this Garden, and our task is to prepare for renewal: renewal of ourselves and renewal of this world, this kingdom to come.