Monday, April 25, 2005

for the beauty of the earth

I have at times asked a question of people I respect and know well: where do you experience God most powerfully? There are four recurring answers:

listening to great music…
touching and being touched by the poor…
being in the presence of children…
and experiencing the beauty of God’s world.

God speaks to us in many and various ways, and one of the most powerful forms of communication is the creation. The reformer John Calvin called the world in which we live “the theater of God’s Glory”.

The 8th Psalm is a hymn of praise to God for the gift of creation that moves us to awe and wonder, to thanksgiving and praise. It begins and concludes with the words, O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Within these words, the psalm touches on two questions: Who is God?” And “who are we?”

Who is God? God is the awesome creator, the master designer, the giver of life. Israel’s faith in creation was grounded in their historical experience. Their neighbors worshipped the sun and the moon, the two great lights, as gods. But the God of creation was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a God who speaks, a God who acts, and a God who orders all things. This God created the two great lights, on the fourth day---and I remind us to read Genesis 1 alongside Psalm 90: a thousand years in the sight of God are like a day. Reading Genesis 1 and 2 points to a purpose and meaning for the creation in which we live. I like the saying believing that creation happened by random chance is similar to a conviction that there was an explosion of words, and the end result is Webster’s Dictionary! As someone has said, I don’t have that much faith!

Imagine that you are looking at sunrise or a sunset (I prefer sunsets!), or you are gazing at the ridge of a beautiful mountain, or listening to the eternal return of the waves, or you are caught off guard by the epiphany of a rainbow, or you are visiting the Zoo at Asheboro, or the Aquarium in Baltimore, or you are taking a walk closer to home. Isn’t it obvious that God is the awesome creator, the master designer, the giver of life?

The early Christians believed that we could learn to read God’s creation like a book, and that through study of this book, the creation, we could cultivate a deeper love for God. Some of my most important spiritual experiences, as a young person, happened in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Certainly, the sense that I should be open to full-time ordained ministry came there, although I did not understand it fully at first. I would imagine a number of us, here this morning, can remember an experience at a camp, maybe in the summer, where we felt a nearness to God, where we became more convinced of the reality of God, where we began to have a more personal response to the question “Who is God?”

God is the awesome creator, the master designer, the giver of life. And in the face of such a reality, we are then prone to ask, “Who am I?” And our answer might be, “I’m nothing”. But the scripture has a different answer: You have made us a little less than God, and given us dominion over the works of your hands (Psalm 8.6). We have been given dominion. We are stewards. He’s got the whole world in his hands, we sing, and in reading Genesis 1 we discover that he has put the whole world into our hands!

There is a wonderful story about a preacher going out to visit a farmer. They ride out in a truck to see the expanse, all laid out, as far as the eye can see, and the preacher says, “This farm sure is a witness to Lord!”, and the farmer replies, “yes, and you should have seen it when the Lord had it all to himself!”

Well, the Lord doesn’t have it all to himself. In the first of the two creation passages (Genesis 1), human beings are created in the image of God, and given dominion over the earth. And here praise begins to turn toward confession. To have dominion is not to rule or exploit. To have dominion is to follow the example of the Good Shepherd, who cares for the creatures, who seeks their well-being, who understands that to rule is to serve.

There is something spiritually significant here: Our care for the earth mirrors our care for God. God cares for us so that we might care for the world, for each other, for all creation. To care for the creation is to care for the creator. To have a reverence for the mountains and the shoreline is to be in communion with God who spoke and called it all into being. And the opposite is true: to live in a throwaway culture is to deny our heritage.

We have abused the creation, and neglected its gifts. Why did this happen? Wendell Berry, a poet and farmer, laments, “the people (Christians) who might have been expected to care most selflessly for the world have had their minds turned elsewhere, to the pursuit of a salvation that was really only another form of gluttony and self-love, the desire to perpetuate their lives beyond the life of the world”.

[For the classic critique of the Christian impact on the environment, see Lynn White's essay.]

We live in the buckle of the Bible belt, and yet we have forgotten that the Bible begins not at Genesis 3, but with Genesis 1. And God created; and God saw that it was good. I am not a native North Carolinian. I am a transplant. My love for this state has always been in part related to its beauty. But in 2005, we must ask the question: have we cared for creation? The Great Smokies National Park is the most polluted of our national parks. An airfield is proposed in the wetlands near little Washington. Our fisheries are being depleted, and the ocean temperatures along our coast are getting warmer.

In the winter I was a citizen member of a group that looked at the open space in our fourteen county region, the quality of the air and the water, the possibilities of bringing people from business, government, land conservancy, and public health together to try to preserve some of rich heritage that is ours. This is important work.

But this is surely not only about politics or economics, tourism or public health. It is a spiritual issue. David Douglas, a lawyer and hiker, has asked the question:

What are our needs for places of silence, solitude and awe? More importantly, what will be our descendents’ needs for them a century from now, in a world far more likely to be drained of contemplative resources? The wilderness exists for its own sake. Along with the rest of creation, it praises and witnesses to [God’s] craftsmanship”.

Our God is the awesome creator, the master designer, the giver of life. And God’s powers are evident in the gifts placed all around us, in the creation, and within us, as stewards. Each of us is a steward.

I recall a conversation with one of our daughters, who was and is environmentally conscious. We were talking one day about the world, and the disarray that it is in, and I experienced a small moment of enlightenment, I suppose, and I asked her, “Do you think your room is a part of the environment?” We disagreed there: she argued that her room was not a part of the environment. I insisted that the environment did include her room!

The point: the creation is not only something “out there”. We are a part of the creation, formed from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2), the air that we breathe is inside of us, the water that we drink flows through us, the food that we eat becomes a part of us. When God created the universe, God made us a part of it. And so, when we care for the creation, we not only care for the Creator, we care for ourselves.

Let us confess that we have not fulfilled our original vocation, to work with the land, to till the earth and keep it (Genesis 2. 15), and we have not taken care of ourselves. We have not always been good stewards. And we are bearing the burdens of our failures.

But there is more. Our confidence in the Word of God reminds us that the Lord does bring order out of chaos, and resurrection out of death. And so, a sending forth: I hope you will begin to pray about the connection between your faith and the earth upon which we live. When Jesus taught his disciples, he often asked them to look at the world, and to make these connections. One this morning will suffice.

In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6, Jesus says, “Do not be anxious about your life…” He continues, in the translation taken from the Message: “Look at the birds of the air, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds…Look at the wildflowers…they neither primp nor shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? [And] if God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers---most of which are never even seen---don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you. What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving”.

Look for connections between your faith and the creation that surrounds you. This might be a time apart, perhaps in the spring or summer, to be in the creation, where it seems that God often shows up to display his glory and to remind us of his reality

Take care for the part of the planet that has been entrusted to you. What kind of footprint are we making on this planet? Well, it begins in each of our rooms, because we are a part of the environment.

Become an advocate, an intercessor, for the creation, for your own sake, and for the sake of our children and their children’s children. I want the rivers and lakes and mountains and shorelines to be here when they come along. Someone must speak a word on behalf of the creation.

I cannot imagine my own Christian life without the opportunities I have had to hike, to camp, to canoe, to raft, to retreat. This wilderness places were the open spaces where God seemed to appear, at just the right time.

I cannot imagine that God is pleased with the way his own people are caring for the earth. Listen to Revelation 4. 11: Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; For you have created all things, and for your pleasure they were and are created. We care for the earth because God created it, for his own pleasure. It is not ours to use up. We are stewards.

I can imagine that God invites each of us to appreciate the beauty of the earth---the hymn testifies, “he shines in all that’s fair".

In the name of God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth;
and Jesus Christ, the first-born of creation,
and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. Amen.

Sources: Wendell Berry, The Art of The Commonplace; David Douglas, Wilderness Sojourn; Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places.

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