Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Earth Day is for the birds ... and the rivers ... and the forests ... and all of God's good creation

A friend who is working on a thesis about why Christians seem to do such a poor job of caring for the earth suggested I read a statement entitled "God's Earth is Sacred: An Open Letter to Church and Society in the United States. " The document was written by a group of 11 Christian theologians and ethicists convened by the National Council of Churches.

Among the members of the group are two people whose writings and ways of thinking I especially appreciate: Larry Rasmussen, a Lutheran ethicist who actually seems to live his ethics (he used to teach here in Washington at Wesley Seminary but is now on the faculty of Union Seminary in New York City), and Bill McKibben, a United Methodist whose most famous book is entitled The End of Nature but whom I love most for his book The Age of Missing Information. (In The Age of Missing Information McKibben contrasts his experience of watching 1,700 hours of cable TV and spending an equal amount of time camping in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. He argues that watching too much TV has made us stupid about things that really matter, some of which -- including death -- we could learn much more about by observing nature. McKibben reports that he did not see a single example of natural death in 1,700 hours of watching TV; camping in the Adirondacks he repeatedly witnessed death as a part of the cycle of life.) Coincidently, both Rasmussen and McKibben are laypersons, as an encouragingly high percentage of the group who wrote this statement seems to be, much more so than groups usually called together to write theological and ethical proclamations.

I have been meditating on this statement "God's Earth is Sacred" these past few weeks in preparation for Earth Day, commonly celebrated in the larger society on April 22 and, in some churches, the following Sunday.

The statement begins with a brief reminder of some of the most unsettling ways that humanity has damaged the earth: "Earth's climate is warming to dangerous levels; 90 percent of the world's fisheries have been depleted; coastal development and pollution are causing a sharp decline in ocean health; shrinking habitat threatens to extinguish thousands of species; over 95 percent of the contiguous United States forests have been lost; and almost half of the population in the United States lives in areas that do not meet national air quality standards." The list, of course, could go on and on.

As I have read, reread, and prayed over the statement, I have encountered an idea that has touched and troubled me:

The writers of "God's Earth is Sacred" suggest that the damage we have done and still do to the earth is a consequence of bad theology. In fact, they call it a "false gospel." This is what they have written: "We have listened to a false gospel that we continue to live out in our daily habits -- a gospel that proclaims that God cares for the salvation of humans only and that our human calling is to exploit Earth for our own ends alone." I have to confess that I am pretty much guilty as charged.

My theological thinking has assumed that human beings were the point of God's creation: everything else led up to us, everything else found its fulfillment in us, the rest of creation had meaning because of us, and only because of us. I was taught this by the way biblical creation stories were told to me as a child and by most of the theology I read as an adult. Creation exists for the purpose of that part of it which is conscious and self- aware -- human beings. I remember seminary discussions in which consciousness and self-awareness were equated with the imageo Deo, the image of God which is presumed to be found on earth uniquely in humankind.

Interestingly enough, this assumption was reinforced by most of the science I learned. While we sometimes acknowledge that evolutionary processes might still produce something more advanced and more important than humanity, I suspect very, very few of those of us who take evolution seriously really believe this is likely. What form of life could be higher or more important than us? Dr. Spock? A Computer? Really.

Even much of the way we --including those of us who consider ourselves ecologically aware and responsible-- discuss the environment today is based on the assumption that the rest of creation's purpose and meaning depends on the existence of human beings. Isn't this the subtle implication of calling the rest of creation "the environment"? Whose environment are we talking about? Taking care of the environment is important, we think, because it is our environment.

And likewise much of our ecological concern is based on self-interest. We worry about global warming and the pollution of the atmosphere and the oceans because these things threaten our existence. We worry about toxicity in air, water, and earth because it may poison us and our children and our nieces and nephews and our children's children.

"God's Earth is Sacred" contends that the rest of creation has inherent value for its own sake, not merely as our environment. The statement outlines eight guiding norms for church and society: justice, sustainability, bioresponsibility, humility, generosity, frugality, solidarity, and compassion. Of these, the one I find most challenging is bioresponsibility.

The statement defines bioresponsibility as "extending the covenant of justice to include all other life forms as beloved creatures of God and as expressions of God's presence, wisdom, power, and glory." It adds: "We do not determine nor declare creation's value, and other creatures should not be treated merely as instruments for our needs and wants. Other species have their own integrity. They deserve a 'fair share' of Earth's bounty- a share that allows a biodiversity of life to thrive along with human communities."

Is it possible that God loves sunfish as much as us? Is it possible that God's eye is on the sparrow as well as watching you and me? Is it possible Christ died for the sake of clean, pure water and fresh air as much as for the healing of the nations and the salvation of our souls? Rasmussen, McKibben and the others who wrote this document are quick to remind us that John 3:16 begins with the words: "For God so loved the cosmos ..." The Greek word we translate "world" in John 3:16 is cosmos.

God so loved the universe that God gave God's only begotten so that we would not perish but have everlasting life. God so loved the stars and the planets that God gave God's only begotten so we would not perish... God so loved geological rock formations and mountains and valleys that God gave God's only begotten so we would not perish... God so loved the rain forest that God gave God's only begotten so we would not perish...

I am challenged by this possibility:
--that God's love for all God's creation means that we are not the end of creation, but that creation itself, of which we are only a part, is the end and goal of God's creative work;
--that when God said: "Let the earth put forth vegetation..." and "the earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it; and God saw that it was good" (Gen. 1:11-12), it was good even before humanity was here to appreciate it or use it;
--that when "God made two great lights ... and set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth ... and God saw that it was good" ( Gen. 1:16-18), it was good even before women and men were here to see by them;
--that when "God said: 'Let the waters bring forth swarms ... let the birds fly ... let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals' ... And God saw that it was good (Gen. 1:20-25), it was good even before human beings were here to catch them, or to swat them, or to barbecue them.

This possibility is theologically challenging, at least for me in my generation. I have always assumed that God's true and real relationship was with humanity and that the rest of creation was merely the stage on which the drama of the divine-human encounter was played out. What if God has a loving relationship with the Chesapeake Bay, fed by the Susquehanna River which this year has been named America's most endangered river, and with the endangered Siberian tiger, of which there are only 400 left, and the endangered whooping crane, so graceful and beautiful, of which there are only 250 adult birds left?

The Great Commission found in the longer ending of the Gospel of Mark was mistranslated for years, because translators couldn't believe it meant what it says. In Mark 16: 15, the Risen Jesus says to the 11 disciples: "Go into all the cosmos and proclaim the good news to the whole ktisis." For many years this was translated: "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature." (KJV) Even a newer translation says: "Go and preach the gospel to everyone in the world." (CEV) But the New Revised Standard Version has it right. The Greek word ktisis means "creation" -- everything that is and the whole process of it coming to be and continuing to be. The Risen Jesus says, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation." (NRSV)

St. Francis of Assisi apparently caught a glimpse of this. According to the conservation.catholic.org website, one of his most famous sermons is one he gave to a flock of birds. According to Thomas of Celano, one day while Francis and some friars were traveling along the road, Francis looked up and saw trees full of birds. Francis "left his companions in the road and ran eagerly toward the birds" and "humbly begged them to listen to the word of God."

One of the friars took notes. Francis preached: "My brothers, birds, you should praise your Creator very much and always love [God]; [God] gave you feathers to clothe you, wings so that you can fly, and whatever else was necessary for you. God made you noble among [God's] creatures, and he gave you a home in the purity of the air; though you neither sow nor reap, [God] nevertheless protects and governs you without any solicitude on your part."

This event was a turning point in Francis of Assisi's life. Thomas of Celano says, "He began to blame himself for negligence in not having preached to the birds before" and "from that day on, he solicitously admonished the birds, all animals and reptiles, and even creatures that have no feeling, to praise and love their Creator."

"God's Earth is Sacred" says: "To continue to walk the current path of ecological destruction is not only folly; it is sin." It quotes the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who says: "To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God's creation . . . for humans to degrade the integrity of Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands . . . for humans to injure other humans with disease . . . for humans to contaminate the Earth's waters, its land, its air, and its life, with poisonous substances . . . these are sins." It says: "We have become un-Creators. Earth is in jeopardy at our hands."

We have become un-Creators.

Like Francis of Assisi, the Psalmist saw creation and the Creator God as having an intimate relationship, as being in love with each other:
"O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both great and small ...
These all look to you to give them their food in due season;
when you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are full of good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
May the Lord rejoice in [the Lord's] works --
who looks on the earth and it trembles,
who touches the mountains and they smoke." (Ps. 104:24-32)

What if this is more than poetry? What if we are dismantling a beautiful and intricate world that is the work of God's loving hand? Billions and billions of years of God's artistry -- what if we are un-creating it?

The way we see and perceive may be the most important thing. If we see the rest of God's creation as raw material, we may end up becoming un-Creators -- builders of towers of Babel. But if --through prayer and communion -- we can learn to see the rest of creation, with Francis and the Psalmist, as God's beloved, the beloved of God, then perhaps we can learn to live in peace and harmony with the rest of God's good creation.


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