– contributed by the Rev. Stephen Gehlert, Bethany United Church of Christ, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
Every since I was a child, something I loved about vacations was being in the beauty and wonder of nature. That’s still an important to me; I love being in amazing diversity and awesome grandeur of the natural world. I’m looking forward to a long hike that will give a chance to do that this summer.
But over the years, it’s been sobering to see how that diversity and grandeur are being diminished because of human activity.
I’ve seen it in so many places:
- on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains, where Owens Lake, once big enough to require riverboats to cross, has been drained dry by Los Angeles.
- in the Adirondacks, where nearly all the lakes are dead, due to acid rain.
- in Glacier National Park, which will soon be without it’s namesake ice fields.
- in all the Rockies, where a tiny mammal called the pika, is in danger of extinction, as the timberline where they live, moves ever higher, because of warming temperatures.
- in the Cascade mountains, where the year-round snow cover for which they’re known, will also soon be gone, on every mountain, except the highest, Mount Rainier.
- in the Maritime Provinces of Canada, where the fishing upon which people have long depended, is dead because the fish are simply gone.
But my concern is based on something deeper and broader than my own experience. Watching the nature shows on public TV, I’ve seen the devastation of air, water, plant, and animal life, from pole to pole, and on every continent. My son, who still has ties to National Geographic, often sends links and videos about environmental damage that’s being wrought everywhere.
For me, it’s all very sad. Others may say, “Sad, perhaps, but what does it really matter?”
Well, biologist E. O. Wilson wrote a little book called, The Creation: an Appeal to Save Life on Earth, which provides a powerful answer. It’s a kind of an extended letter to help an imaginary pastor understand why Christians should care about the environment. In it he describes the wondrous complexity and diversity of the natural world, as well as humanity’s unique capacity to care for, or destroy it. Then he describes how, as result of our lack of care, all this amazing complexity and diversity are being destroyed at a rate unprecedented in millions of years. He calls us to recognize that we are both a part of and dependent upon the natural world, and then to claim our high and noble responsibility to be stewards of it. We must, he says, accept this biblical view of ourselves, and the responsibility that goes with it; the future of all creation, ourselves included, hangs in the balance.
Richard Louv’s The Last Child in the Woods helped me see why that’s so hard for us. The problem is, that even with our increased scientific understanding of the natural world and the consequences of our abusing it, we’re increasingly estranged from it and, so prone to abuse it. He makes his case by stating what’s obvious – children don’t play in nature anymore. So, they’re strangers to it, aliens in it, and develop little sense of wonder for, or care about, it. Why? Organized activities and electronic entertainments have children scheduled and occupied with pursuits that keep them far removed from, unfamiliar with, uncomfortable in, and uncaring about, God’s creation. It’s hard to care about something that you don’t really appreciate, that’s alien to you. That, he says, is why we treat the natural world so poorly. That’s also why he’s so pessimistic about its future.
Yet, we need to go beyond stating the obvious – that we and our children have become strangers to nature, content ourselves with stating why (that we’re too busy with other things), and then bemoan the consequences. We need to ask, “Why have we filled up our lives and theirs with electronic entertainments, and organized activities of every sort?” Why has that become life to us?
I’d argue that the answer goes back to a spiritual issue. It has to do with how we feel about ourselves and what we believe about the purpose of life. Organized and scheduled activities have taken over our children’s lives, giving them little time for creativity, play, or experiencing nature, because we think everyone, children included, need to be “on the make,” making themselves, proving their worth, in some way or another. We think everything is bought and sold, including identity, worth, and future. So, our kids better get some skills that will make them marketable, or they’ll be sunk. Think of all the time and energy spent, the miles driven in order to do that; no wonder there’s no time left to play in a field or walk in the woods; even with a national park at our doorstep.
But beneath all that anxious striving, lies an even more basic spiritual issue – the question, “Who is God?” “What kind of God is God? What’s God’s attitude toward the world, humanity, and me? What does that say about who I am, and where my identity and worth come from? What does God expect of humanity, and of me? What am I to trust in, live and hope for?
Well, the Bible offers lots of help with such questions. What it shows, from its beginning with the creation story, is a God who calls the creation “good,” and cares for it and every creature in it. It also shows a God who creates humanity in the divine image, to represent God in caring for creation. So, our identity and worth are given to us by God, not something we have to “make” for ourselves. In fact, the Bible repeatedly warns that when we’re “on the make” as Adam and Eve were when they took the fruit that the serpent said had special power, we separate ourselves from God and each other. It also warns us that failing to live with the care toward each other and the creation that we were created to show, brings terrible consequences. The prophets often describe the results with the words, “the land mourns.” When we live only for ourselves, the whole creation suffers.
We believe that the “Who is God” question was answered most fully by someone who showed us how to stop living for ourselves – Jesus of Nazareth. In him, God went beyond a creed or set of commandments, beyond sending prophets. Turkish to English dictionary . God went as far as God could go; in Jesus, God took on our flesh and was born among us. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, show us who God is.
That’s why, when Philip asks the God question in today’s scripture, saying, Lord, show us the Father, (show us who God really is, and by implication, who we are and what we should be about), Jesus responds, Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still don’t know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. In other words, if you’ve seen me, really seen me, you’ve seen who God is, and what God’s all about. You’ve seen what you can trust for life, and what to hope and live for. If you really know Jesus, you know God, the Father.
We may wonder how anyone could be with Jesus and not recognize that with him they were in God’s presence, or look at him and not see what God intends for us, what we should trust, hope, and live for. Yet, we’re not so different. We baptize, confirm, worship, pray, sing, affirm our faith about Jesus’ divinity. But we treat our “knowing” him as a fact we have to get right (he’s the son of God), like knowing what to do about snake-bite, hypothermia, or choking, (something that knowing gives a kind of comfort and security), not as a relationship that shapes everything about how we live.
No, what shapes how we live is what we’ve been taught to trust for life, look to for happiness and security, and live for – stuff, and more stuff, stuff we’re destroying the world to get, use, and discard.
But Jesus shows us is something else altogether, something with tremendous implications not just for how we see God, ourselves, and others, but how we live in the world, with what hope, for what purpose, and therefore, with what consequences not only for ourselves but for all creation.
So, what does he show?
First, we can trust God’s love. That he came to us and bore our sin shows us. That he humbled himself, and was baptized along with scores of sinners, shows us, too. So do the words he heard at his baptism, words God intends for all of us, “You’re my child, my beloved, I’m pleased with you.” So does his welcoming all who’d come into his kingdom and forgiving the sins of all who were truly sorry. His expecting all who entered his kingdom to share that love and forgiveness, does too.
But he showed us God’s love in another, less direct but equally important way. He showed us that because we can trust God’s love, we don’t need to worry about stuff. What shall we eat or wear? Don’t worry, he says, God knows we need it; God will provide it. He lived with such trust in God’s love that he never worried about stuff.
That means he lived with what was enough, enough to live himself, and enough to share with God and others. That’s what he taught us to pray for, “give us this day, our daily bread” – enough. He showed a new way of living that was based on trust in God’s love and contentment with “enough.”
Yet, he also said, “I’ve come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” And that doesn’t conflict with what he showed about “enough.” We don’t find the abundance he’s talking about in things we can acquire or accumulate, status we can attain, or power we can amass. For Jesus abundance has to do with relationship – loving, forgiving, trusting, joyful relationship with God and others. When he said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” he was saying that the way to life is in right relationship with God and others, lived under the rule of God’s love, not in acquiring or accumulating things, gaining status, or amassing power. And we can dare to make that the focus of our life, because we trust that God loves us, and will bless us with enough, so we can be free to focus our life on relationship, and know the abundant joy it gives.
The key to averting the environmental catastrophe that looms before us is spiritual: making a “soul-shift” from seeing abundance in material terms, to seeing abundance in relational terms. Knowing that God loves us, cares for us, and will provide “enough” for us, frees us from worrying about our material security, frees us so we can invest ourselves in what really matters – relationship – with people, of course, but also with the creation which we’ve so neglected and abused.
It also frees us to learn that’s where real joy and fulfillment are found, not in things. If we learned that, that’s what we’d put our energy and resources into. Think what that would mean! Parents wouldn’t work long hours, to buy, furnish, and accessorize McMansions; they’d focus their time and energy on each other and their kids – cooking, eating, playing together. We wouldn’t be caught on an endless cycle of acquiring the next new thing. We wouldn’t feel that identity, worth, security, and joy, were wrapped up in stuff. So we wouldn’t buy, consume, or waste so much. And the world would be a better place, where the creation, us included, has hope for the future.
In Jesus, we’ve seen both God and our true selves. We’ve seen who God is and how God wants us to be. What he’s shown us is good news. Good news that can free us from anxieties about identity, worth, and security that have led us to become addicted to the acquisition, consumption, and waste, that are not only destroying the creation of which we’re a part and upon which we depend for life, but are also destroying the relationships that give life meaning and joy. Good news that the power to make this change begins not with us, but with God, a God who loves us enough, not only to provide for our daily needs, and entrust creation to us, but to come to us, live with, and die for us. Good news that, in Jesus’ resurrection, this God’s power for life, overcomes even death itself.
In fear we’ve chosen death – for our relationships, ourselves, and creation. We don’t have to. We can choose life, abundant life, lived for God and others. Let’s begin! May God help us to make a start!