Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Stewardship of Creation

In my November 3 post, I said that the tasks of the church were as follows:

  1. Stewardship of Creation
  2. Stewardship of Community
  3. Proclamation of Jesus 
  4. Proclamation of the Kingdom
I want to start working through these and explain why each of these four is critical to the mission of the church.

Stewardship of creation is a trendy political issue these days. Pipeline protests, land management conflicts, environmental regulations, carbon exchanges -- all of it lives in the realm of secular politics. Why should the church be concerned about creation? Face it, most of us as Christians don't pay a whole lot of attention to the natural world. Doubt that? Let me ask you a question: Is the moon, right now, waxing or waning? 

If you can't immediately answer without going to a website or a calendar to check it out, you're out of touch with the natural world. But does that matter? 

Again, let's go back to Jesus' practices, words and priorities. If you're paying attention as you read the gospels, you'll see Jesus intimately attentive to the natural world. He speaks about cycles of planting and harvest, talks about signs of weather in the skies and the wind direction, the habits of animals and birds, the intimate details of vineyards. He uses flowers and grasses and sparrows and trees throughout his speaking and teaching. When Jesus was in Jerusalem, an urban environment where, if he wanted to, Jesus could be insulated from the natural world by immersing himself in the life of the city, Luke's gospel tells us it was "his custom" to go to the Mount of Olives, to stay in places like the Garden of Gethsemane outside the urban bustle. 

Of course, all humans were more intimately connected with the natural world in those days, right? This is probably true. Though there were people who could insulate themselves from the vagaries of the natural world. They tended to be the upper classes, the rulers who could afford climate-controlled housing, artificial light, and who didn't have to worry as much about weather as they didn't have to work in the elements. Herod, Caesar, and other wealthy, powerful people demonstrate the truth of what Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett say in their delightful story, Good Omens, "almost the entire drive of human history has been an attempt to get as far away from Nature as possible." 

And we see this like crazy today. Your cell phone, your computer, your television are not dependent on vagaries like the length of daylight in any 24-hour period, for example. And the fact that there are apps you can get on your phone or your computer to change the wavelength of light so your body can adjust and get ready for sleeping at certain times of day just proves my point, not the reverse. 

You see, what Caesar and Herod and the wealthy in Jesus' own day had is exactly what we have: the ancient Greeks called it "hubris," the belief that somehow we're above it all. Beyond the simple annoyance of it all, does it really matter to you if it rains or freezes? Yes, it might affect traffic. Does it really matter what the phase of the moon is right now or what time the sun rises and sets? Taking it a step further, as long as it doesn't affect your drinking water, does it really matter if the vacant lot next door turns out to be a toxic Superfund site? Beyond a little sense of offense and indignation and fear, probably not. We're capable of controlling things like that. We're capable of getting beyond it. Even the residents of Flint, Michigan were quickly able to get sources of bottled water for the most part when their tap water turned out to be toxic. 

But stories like that are a good reminder that we may be more vulnerable than we thought. More to the current point, while we are capable of insulating ourselves from the natural world pretty effectively, we may be missing out on important things if we do.

For the last few years I was living in a first ring suburb of the Twin Cities. The concrete and traffic drove me crazy. I'd go to parks just to have a chance to breathe, but even the wildest of parks in the Cities felt like artificially domesticated, groomed plots of woodland to me. Let me say that the Twin Cities has an amazing network of parks and I thoroughly enjoyed many of them. But I longed for the woods and fields. Granted, I'm a farm kid and a hunter, and a sense of connection to the natural world is hard-wired into me. 

My circumstances have changed significantly (it's a long story, but my urban burnout plays significantly in the drama) in the last several months, and as I write this I'm sitting in the midst of real, undomesticated trees, with real wildlife roving the terrain. I have the privilege of watching -- and participating in -- the rhythms of the natural world as the days grow shorter and the lake freezes up (not yet, thank goodness, as I still need to get the dock pulled out) and I'm cutting wood for heat for the winter and getting a few important projects finished up before the soil freezes. My days are shaped by the weather. 

All of this helps me see some of what was so important to Jesus in connecting to the natural world. The Bible says repeatedly that the natural world reveals God in significant ways. Now, it's important to say that we don't get a complete revelation of God from nature. But Psalm 19 and Romans 1 and many other passages tell us that there are significant lessons to learn from the natural world. And Jesus' own practice of using nature to illustrate his teachings (see for example Matthew 6) says he was all about this connection to the created world. 

It follows, then, that the church ought to be concerned about the stewardship of creation. What exactly does that look like? Does that mean we should be concerned about the use of styrofoam cups in our coffee hours, or protesting the latest pipeline routes, or picking up garbage on the side of the highway? Possibly. Our stewardship might lead us into each of those and dozens of other places. But maybe it's wiser to start with realizing how much of our life as a church is already shaped by the natural world. 

For example, why is Christmas on December 25? That date was carefully chosen not because it's Jesus' actual birthday, but rather because that is the first day after the winter solstice in which human beings without scientific instruments can measure the increasing length of daylight, in the northern hemisphere at least. So Jesus is the light coming into the world, coming into our darkness. The season of Advent, as the days descend into darkness, is built off this cosmic event, as is the season of Epiphany, when the days are growing longer and light is coming into the world and we celebrate Jesus being revealed to us in splendid glory. The word "Lent" comes from the Latin "lencten," which means "lengthen" which refers to increasing daylight as the calendar marches forward. 

Easter is perhaps the most notorious cosmic calendar holiday. Did you know that the date for Easter, modeled off the biblical system for calculating Passover, is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring (vernal) equinox? That's why the date of Easter jumps around in such annoying fashion. It depends on the phases of the moon. 

Our problem is not so much that we are arrogant about feeling superior to the rhythms of the created world -- our problem is that we are just ignorant and unaware. In the creation story we are told that God himself set up the stars and the heavenly bodies to be "for signs and for seasons and for days and years." If we are not paying attention to the created world, we are in danger of missing the signs. I'm not talking about signs of Jesus' second coming or any of that hand-wringing, though the cosmic bodies get in on that action too, according to Jesus. Rather, I'm talking about the signs that reveal to us a loving, orderly Creator and call us to live as part of his created order. So much of the Bible speaks of this calling and connection. The church would do well to pay attention. 

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