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Category : Scripture Reflections

Campus Events Are Underway — First up, University of Virginia

On Sept. 3rd, Jessica Church, Good Steward Campaign's Field Director, traveled down to Charlottesville, Virginia to spend an evening talking faith, creation care, and stewardship with The University of Virginia's Canterbury Student Ministry. Attendance varied from first years to graduate students and conversation was lively.

We looked the story of Creation, specifically Genesis 1:26-31. The text reads as follows:

26Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

29God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

31God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

This is one of those texts that critics of the environmental movement use to debase Christian ideas of stewardship and creation care. But with careful examination, you can find that this Scripture is full of clues and instructions on how God relates to humans and how humans ought to relate to Creation.

First, we're told to have dominion over the Earth. But God has dominion over us, while still allowing us to develop, flourish, and be our truest, most unique selves. This is one way we can think of 'dominion' over the wild parts of nature. Don't stifle it. Rather, let it grow.

Second, versus 29-31 talk about livestock, plants, and food. In this respect, having 'dominion' is akin to being the best gardener or farm manager around. It means nurturing the land, planting seeds, and feeding those in your community.

We love praying, talking, and reflecting on Scripture with students at UVA. They asked tough questions, had insightful comments, and are passionate about being Good Stewards of this great Creation.

But this is only the first event of many! We'll be at 30 schools this fall, so stay tuned.

 

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

Over the past months working for the Good Steward Campaign, I have been confronted with many misconceptions regarding climate science and our impact on the environment. While this has been frustrating at times, it’s understandable given the rampant misinformation surrounding global warming and other environmental concerns. More concerning however, is the presence of bad theology. Foremost among these misguided arguments is “Jesus is coming back and the world will be destroyed, so who cares about caring for the earth now?”

My natural inclination upon hearing this is to just shake my head. Certainly there are varying interpretations of scripture but I have come to believe that this view is not just “one interpretation” – it’s just plain wrong. Admittedly, eschatology, or the study of end times, is not my favorite theological subject. I have always thought that if I am saved, who cares about the order of what happens when? However, there is an important link between eschatology and creation care that’s worth exploring. Plus, it only seems appropriate to dive into this discussion given the imminent destruction of the world on December 21, 2012.

What Scripture Says
Before we discuss the end of the world, it’s important to remember the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. He created not only us, and not only the earth, but the entire universe. A couple chapters later in Genesis, when sin entered the world, it entered not only Adam and Eve but the entire created order. Thus the significance of the favorite verse among Evangelicals, John 3:16, when it says “For God so loved the world.” Indeed, the word “world” in Greek is translated as “cosmos.” Paul elaborates in Romans 8 when he describes how “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” Again in Colossians 1 Paul reminds us that through Christ, God “reconciled to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Finally, in Revelation 21, we read of “a new heaven and a new earth.” In many other places in God’s word we are told that the earth will be renewed and remain forever (Ecclesiastes 1:4, Isaiah 65:17, 2 Peter 3:13). Regardless of the belief that God is going to destroy this world, Scripture makes it clear that God will not destroy the world, but instead sent His son to renew us and all of creation.

Understanding God’s intention for the world at the beginning and end leaves us with a question – how then should we treat the world now? When we were first created, we were placed in a garden, and given the responsibility to tend it. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus accepted His mission to die for us, rescuing all of creation from sin. Three days after being taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb, his body was missing. Visibly upset, Mary Magdalene was asked why she was crying by someone she thought was a gardener. Shortly thereafter she realized she was talking to the risen Lord. Christ had come back as a “gardener” to rectify the fall in the Garden of Eden.

Our Responsibility
When Christ returns for the second time, I hope He finds us tending His garden, as we were initially given the responsibility to do, where Jesus committed to give His life for us, and where He was first found after He rose. In the Great Commission, Jesus gave us two commands. The first command of “making disciples of all nations” is remembered, while the second is too often forgotten. In making disciples of all nations, Christ said we are to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” When previously asked of the greatest commandment, Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-38).

There is no denying that our care of the earth directly impacts our neighbor. We are failing to love our neighbor when we contaminate a water source and the people who consume that water become sick. We are failing to love our neighbor when we make toxic waste dumps in poor neighborhoods and cancer rates skyrocket. We are failing to love our neighbor when we burn fossil fuels with reckless abandon, leading to a dramatically warming earth, which creates an abundance of crippling consequences such as stronger storms, swamped islands, and devastating droughts which wreak havoc on food production all over the world. We can do better than this.

Taking Action
Despite the existence of bad theology, we still have the responsibility to be good stewards. Understanding what scripture says about the end times should not act as an excuse to sit on the sidelines. On the contrary, it should be a catalyst for action. We can each tend the garden in different ways – from cleaning a local stream, advocating for stronger environmental regulations in Congress, urging our church leaders to speak up as the moral voice on vital issues such as global warming, or actually working in a garden, growing and eating local food. As followers of Christ let’s not become scarecrows, sitting and watching as the garden grows wild. Instead, let us be agents of change in caring for God’s creation, tending the garden while we wait patiently to be renewed.

Drew Robinson is the Director of the Good Steward Campaign.

Waterless Urinal Evangelism

In another edition of our "Scripture Reflections" series, we are posting Rev. Pat Watkins' recent speech from the September 13, 2012 event at the White House: Greening America's Congregations through Energy Efficiency.

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Thanks very much for the invitation to be here.  I am a Christian and a United Methodist, but, according to the Hebrew Scriptures in Genesis...I was created out of the dust of the earth.  I don’t know how we can be more in relationship with the earth than to have been created out of it.  But that wasn’t enough for our creation, was it?  God had to breathe the breath of life into our nostrils.  I don’t know how we can be more in relationship with God than to be breathing the very breath of our creator.  Seems to me by virtue of the fact that we are living, breathing human beings, we have a relationship with earth because we came out of it and we have a relationship with God because we breathe the same breath.  And we have a relationship with each other because we all came out of the earth and we all breathe the breath of God.

These relationships with God, the earth, and each other, form the core of my theology of creation care.  These three relationships are so enmeshed with each other, so connected and interconnected that one simply cannot exist in isolation from the other two.  This theology exists in Hebrew and Christian scriptures from one end to the other.

The Biblical stories of the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Naoh, the prophets Micah, Amos, Isaiah, and Hosea, just to name a few, all speak to this trifecta of relationships and the connections among them.

Job’s story is perhaps closest to our own.  His perception of creation was that it existed to serve him; he saw himself at the center of the universe; all creation existed for humanity’s benefit.  As a result, he made assumptions about creation, God, and his own place within creation that were wrong.  He learned, after a bit of suffering, that creation belongs to God, not him, that, in fact, he was not the center of the universe.  His perception changed radically in terms of who God is, what creation is all about, and even his own role in creation as one of God’s creatures.

In John’s gospel, we read that Jesus was present with God at creation and that everything that has come into being has come into being through Christ.

The apostle Paul, in his writings to the Romans and Colossians, defines a theology of Jesus being the redeemer, not just of humanity but of all creation.  So if somehow we understand Jesus to be the redeemer of all that is, and if we see ourselves as disciples of Jesus, then we have no choice but to participate with Christ in the redemption of the earth.

We have a great story as Christians, and if we can really know that story, then our politics, our positions on issues, our actions will emanate out of who we are as Christians.  I, for one, do not believe that the issues should be our sole motivator for doing something.  Whatever we do, whatever we say, whatever actions we take, need to naturally evolve out of our faith that connects relationship with God with relationship with earth.

The United Methodist Church has within its Book of Discipline, which is the document that governs us, a section called “The Social Principles,” which is an attempt on our part to take Biblical theology and apply it to today’s world, particularly to areas in our society that are experiencing injustice.  The first section is called “The Natural World” and describes how we connect Biblical theology with care of the earth.

Here are just a few sentences from the introductory paragraph:

All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse it.  Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings.  God has granted us stewardship of creation. We should meet these stewardship duties through acts of loving care and respect.  Therefore, let us recognize the responsibility of the church and its members to place a high priority on changes in economic, political, social, and technological lifestyles to support a more ecologically equitable and sustainable world leading to a higher quality of life for all of God’s creation.


In spite of very obviously having been written by a committee, this is a fantastic statement of United Methodist theology of creation care.

In 2009 our Council of Bishops released a Pastoral Letter entitled “God’s Renewed Creation” in which the Bishops identify three major areas of focus of the church on a global scale, pandemic poverty and disease, environmental degradation, and the proliferation of violence and weapons.  But the really cool and unique thing about this document is that the Bishops are making the case that until we get a handle on the interconnectedness and complicatedness of these three main issue areas and understand exactly how they relate to each other, we will not be as effective as we can potentially be, in solving them.  In other words we can no longer stay in our little silos of environmentalism or poverty or peace and war.  We have to do better than that.  We have to think much more deeply and wholistically about how all of this is inter-related.

And since communities of faith already have our fingers in all of these main issue areas, I am so convinced that we are the ones to offer good and appropriate solutions to these problems.  If people of faith could get behind all of this, we could not only make a contribution; we could solve the problems. Whether we will or not remains to be seen, but I know we have the ability and skill to do even greater works than Jesus did; he said we would in John’s gospel.  I don’t know what we’re waiting for!!

The organization I direct is Caretakers of God’s Creation, a creation care ministry of the United Methodist Church.  We raise the awareness of United Methodists as to the connection between faith and responsibility to care for the earth, and then using a tool we developed called the Green Church Initiative we empower and equip our congregations to live out their faith, given that responsibility.  The Green Church Initiative requires action in the areas of Stewardship, Mission, Evangelism, Discipleship and Worship.  It’s not just about recycling and Styrofoam, it’s about more total lifestyle change, theological education, advocacy, deep thinking, and ultimately permanent solutions.

One of our VA churches remodeled its education wing a few years ago.  Among several green building principles they incorporated, was the addition of waterless urinals in the men’s rooms.  About a year later, Dave Short and his family visited River Road.  Dave sent the family to the sanctuary while he excused himself to the men's room.  While peeing in the waterless urinal, he read the plaque that said River Road UMC would save up to 40,000 gallons of water per year because of said urinal.  He got done, found his family in the sanctuary, sat down beside his wife and proclaimed, “We are joining River Road United Methodist Church because here is a church that cares about God’s creation.”  And they did and Dave is an active member of their creation care ministry.  I call that “Waterless Urinal Evangelism.”  We can make the church relevant again for so many people out there for whom the church no longer has any relevance.

Again, I am so convinced that we hold the key to a myriad of solutions.  Our challenge is to engage our people in what those of us here have already discovered.  I will hold all of you in my prayers and hope you will do the same for me.  Thanks.

Rev. Pat Watkins is the Executive Director of Caretakers of God's Creation, a ministry dedicated to caring for and healing God's creation.  He has a degree from North Carolina State University in Mechanical Engineering and received his Master of Divinity from Duke University.

What If?

One of my earliest memories from Sunday school is "what if." What if Adam and Eve never fell? What if we still lived in the garden? What if we never had to work?

But this view of work and “paradise” is not the picture we get from passages like Psalm 104. Psalm 104 is one of those great, sweeping, “glory of God” psalms, verse after verse talking about and illustrating God’s “splendor and majesty.” At first, it does indeed seem like paradise, as it describes how God “lays the beams of his upper chambers in the waters” and “makes the clouds his chariots,” how he “sends forth springs in the valleys” and how “the earth is satisfied with the fruit of His works.”

However, Psalm 104 is not a “what if” story. Notice that these verses are in the present tense. They are talking about things that are ongoing, about things that God is still doing. They talk about how God, today, is still involved in our world. Psalm 104 is not filled with “what if” statements but with praises for incredible ways God has put the world together, providing resources for every kind of creature, from trees to birds to wild goats (vv. 16-18).

Now look at verse 14: “He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, 
and vegetation for the labor of man.” 
So, while God gives grass to the animals directly – they only have to bend down and chew – God provides for human beings indirectly, or said another way, cooperatively: he causes the vegetation to grow when we labor. This glorious picture of life on earth – this earth where the mountains know their place, the moon faithfully runs through its phases, where the sun knows just what to do (see vv. 8 and 19) – this glorious picture includes mankind going “forth to his work and to his labor until evening” (verse 23).

Work is not a curse. Working with what God has created by using and caring for the resources God has provided is not punishment. Work is how God wants – and has always wanted – to provide for us. It is how we were always meant to be involved with him. Psalm 104, and its picture of God providing for us through our work, is not a picture of what is wrong with the world (the Bible has plenty of pictures of what is wrong in other passages), but a picture of what is right

And what is right is work, work with creation, work that cares for the earth and work that allows God to care for us through our wise use of what creation provides.

So, what if Adam and Eve had never fallen? What if we had faithfully continued God’s call in Genesis 1:28 to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth"? Would we not now be living and caring for God’s creation, acting as good stewards over a gently, wisely expanding use of all God had provided? Sin makes all of this work more difficult, but are we to abandon God’s call just because, through our own failure, it has become more difficult?

Dean Storelli has served overseas, on campus and in the 20s mission of The Navigators and speaks regularly about "work." He also works at Duke's Public Public Policy school and maintains a blog at human365.org.   

Touching Creation

Recreationally, I prefer to spend some time outside.   Much of history has occurred here.   Life and natural, to me, seem to connect quicker in unfiltered air.  Sadly, I'm at a desk, inside, looking out the window.

When I read the scriptures, most of what I read, is outside.  I read of tribes meandering through the desert.  I read of prophets who emerge from the wild.  I see Jesus, on a boat, in a field, near a well and on a cross - all outside.

The temple, in its various forms, seems incapable of containing the divine.  Yet here I am- surrounded by sterile cinder blocks.

Entering into creation care as a spiritual practice for individuals and communities feels irrelevant, to me- if we are sequestered within dry wall and insulation.  I enjoy a run and a ride from time to time as recreation and exercise.

But I believe life springs up from the ground and from the tombs.  More than recreation, I was created not to stand on the earth, but to stand with it.  I must take my shoes off- for this is holy ground.

Spending time outside, in a thoughtful, spiritual way is my entry point to creation care.  I can’t care for something that I never touch.

Jake Maxwell is the Young Adult Minister at Bon Air Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia and a graduate of Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas.

Creation’s Redemption

"... for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." Romans 8:20-23 (NRSV)

At the center of the gospel and all of scripture is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And at the crux of Christ's death and resurrection is love. Encompassed within that love is hope. The death of Christ, an act of love; the resurrection, an act of hope.

It is a real hope that sin, and the evil caused by sin, can be overcome. Today, that sin and evil can be confronted through the living body of Christ – the Church.   God's Holy Spirit gives the Church and its participants not just any life, but true life; true life means the hope of redemption.

The original sin of Adam and Eve sent shockwaves not only into forthcoming generations of humanity, but through all of creation. Our current sins only add to the ramifications of that initial shockwave; sometimes we see the effects and sometimes we don't. But even though we may not see the effects of sin, we can be assured that they are there, culminating in the consequence of death. Because of sin, we will all face death; it is only through the justifying blood of Christ that we will experience resurrection. Our lives in Christ today are the beginning of that redemption.

Even creation seeks redemption from the death that is the consequence of sin. As Paul reminds us, creation has also been waiting for the moment of Christ's death and resurrection, so that the healing love and redemption that replaces sin may overflow into creation itself.

Out of love, God invites us to have an active role in his kingdom; the purpose of this kingdom is a redemption from sin and death and an invitation into love. That invitation extends even into the environmental realm. That is why that at the end of this age, God will not destroy creation, but remake it, free from the consequence of sin. Death will no longer reign.

All of creation has been affected by the ramifications of sin, original and actual. Christ died on the cross and rose again, conquering sin and death. Through him, we can be free from sin and overcome death as well! Let us spread this message of love, hope and redemption to all of God's created life that yearns to be free from sin! Let us do it not for ourselves, but for the message that is the crux of the gospel, the death and resurrection of all of creation's savior, Jesus Christ!

 

Rev. Eric Verbovszky is an associate pastor at the West Chester Church of the Nazarene in West Chester, PA and maintains a blog at http://thekayakingchurch.wordpress.com.   He will be graduating in May 2013 from Nazarene Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity degree.

And He Declared It Good

“And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good” –Genesis 1:31a

 

I’ve always loved the Creation story in Genesis 1.

I love the first day, when God mysteriously establishes order out of chaos.

I love the progression – day after day - from light to earth to plants to fish, birds and animals to people.

I love the fact that, over and over, God calls it good.

And I love the Sabbath rest – and the idea that even God takes time off.

For years, I thought that the meaning of this passage was completely clear and uncontroversial.  That everyone, always, had loved it the way I do.

Then – I started to think.

What would this passage have sounded like to someone 2,500 years ago?  When “nature” was much more threatening to people than it is today?  When everyone had a close relative of friend who had died from pestilence, famine or natural disaster?  When nature was the cause of suffering as well as the source of life?

Then, I looked over my church history notes from seminary.  The most powerful heresy in the early church was “Gnosticism” – people that taught that Creation was evil.  “Look at the suffering and pain involved in life on Earth,” the Gnostics said.  “This place is a prison.  We need to escape.”  Among other practices, Gnostics frowned on having children – because that meant consigning another poor soul to an awful life on Earth.  I’ll bet the Gnostics weren’t big fans of Genesis 1.

Then – I started thinking about my kids and the things I repeat over and over to them – like the way God repeats that Creation is good, over and over.  The things I repeat to my kids aren’t the things they agree with or accept – it’s just the opposite.   It’s the things they don’t accept, or don’t believe.

When I add up these thoughts, I’ve come to a new conclusion about the meaning of Genesis 1.

I think it was a gutsy passage to include in the Bible – because lots of people would have disagreed with it.

I’d bet that people heard it and said to themselves, “I don’t know about how good Creation is.  Look at what the locusts did to my crops this year.”

I’d bet it felt edgy to people who heard it back in the day.

Today, we face serious threats to Creation.  Global warming that displaces millions of poor people in poor countries.  Rising temperatures that create storms that destroy people’s homes and lives.  Energy systems that pump huge amounts of pollution into the air and water.  Toxins that make millions of people sick.  And a lot more.

I’m grateful that the Bible starts with Genesis 1 – a passage that represents a clear, gutsy, edgy assertion.  “This Earth is good,” God says.

Over and over and over.

There’s no question.

It couldn’t be clearer.

And if it’s so good, we’d better not mess it up.

 

Rev. Fletcher Harper is Executive Director of GreenFaith, a sponsor of the Good Steward Campaign.

Creation’s Beginning

"When God began to create heaven and earth - the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping out over the water - God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.  God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from darknes" - Genesis 1: 1-4

Darkness over the surface of the deep.  The image is arresting and hauntingly beautiful.  In Hebrew, the words for the formless void are a poetic alliteration - tohu vavohu - that call to mind an inert chaos, a mound of non-existence.   Most of us learn these very first verses of the Bible as "In the beginning, God created."  But the grammar is in fact more ambiguous, suggesting that creation is not a long ago act completed at "the beginning."  Instead, breathing out across the deep, reaching in to the tohu vavohu, God began to create.  In six days the earth was formed, but God's participation in creation is left open-ended.

It's striking to contrast this toho vavohu described in Genesis 1 to the world we see before our eyes today.  Far from formless, we have filled the earth with very concrete things (and covered it in a good bit of concrete).  As we erect skyscrapers and build roads, our creative relationship with the earth is apparent.  But how often do we stop to think of the earth as a location for God's ongoing participation and creation?  Naturalists and outdoors enthusiasts often say that they most acutely feel the presence and power of God when they are out in nature.  Even before the industrial age, the psalmists and prophets would describe going out to the mountains and the wilderness to encounter God.  Through these testimonies, we hear of a God still participating in creation.  But what about in the din of urban life?  What about in the neatly divided housing divisions of suburban sprawl?  Where is God there?

Human creativity and the intellectual capacity of our minds is a great gift from God that should rightly be used.  In doing so, however, there is a strong temptation for us to come to think of ourselves as the architects of our world.  We are the ones bringing order out of chaos; we are the ones forming, and declaring our creations good.  God's participation in this process is acknowledged, but relegated to the safety of the long ago time of "in the beginning."  God got the ball rolling, but now we're the ones helping it really pick up steam.

Over and against this self-narrative stand the words of Genesis 1.  God is the one who began creating.  God is the one who sustains creation to this day, hour by hour, moment by moment.  God is the one in whom we live and move, and have our being.  God set order to creation, and gave each of us our form.  When we live within that existence, we are able to participate with God in the ongoing act of creation.  It is when we remove God from the equation that our creations cease to be life giving.  We adopt patterns of life that are unsustainable, give ourselves over to consumerism and materialism, and destroy creation for selfish pursuits.  Despite how much we consume, we are unable to fill the void in our lives.  Despite the order we attempt to erect, our lives become stalled and formless.  But here's the Good News.  Even as we are sinking into the dark deep, God still reaches in to the tohu vavohu of our existence and breathes new life.

 

Rachel Johnson graduated with her bachelor's degree from the University of Virginia and holds a M.A.R. in Theology from Yale Divinity School.  She is a deacon and candidate for ordination in her Washington, D.C. church and consults with faith-based communities doing issue advocacy work.