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God Won’t Destroy the Earth – But We Might

Humanity is on a collision course with basic physical reality. For hundreds of years, we’ve operated as if the natural world were merely a source of raw materials for our ambitions and prosperity. But God’s creation is neither infinite nor meant to be casually exploited by human beings. Our way of life is unsustainable, and the modern-day followers of Jesus have a great responsibility to change our lives in order to avert ecological catastrophe.

This may the greatest challenge our species has ever faced.

Any attempt to honor and preserve the creation runs directly counter to the spirit of our age. Our culture is consumed by a spirit of gambling and speculation. We want something for nothing. We demand meteoric growth that spikes out of nowhere and just continues to rise, with no end in sight. Economic growth of only 1-2% per year is considered stagnation, despite the fact that on a geological timescale this kind of growth is actually enormous.

Inspired by the tech boom – where Google and Facebook have gone from nothing to ubiquity in just a few years – we expect that anything important will expand immediately to fill all available space. If an idea doesn’t go viral, its creators must have done something wrong.

Smacked with an Ecological Hockey Stick

You’ve probably seen the hockey stick graph before. It plods along for most of its length, fluctuating slightly – until the very end, when it spikes massively. This crazy pattern, a long period of relative stability followed by a sudden and violent increase – is at the foundation of our whole economy and culture. The hockey stick graph is what we have come to expect of all areas of life.

Far from being a natural given, however, this hockey stick pattern of rocket-like growth is fundamentally unsustainable. Common sense tells us that such an arch cannot continue over long periods. Infinite growth in a finite world is an impossibility.

Yet, we cling to the myth of inexhaustible frontiers. We insist that we can have it all, that economic growth and technological progress can continue indefinitely. We refuse to recognize that we build our progress and wealth on the back of God’s creation, and that the creation has limits.

Our language of going viral is appropriate. Viruses spread and grow at breakneck speed, but they do so by pillaging and destroying the other organisms that host them. Like viruses capturing cells only to turn them into virus-producing factories, we cut down old-growth forests to build our houses, and fill the air with pollution to fuel our industry. Humanity has made enormous material gains in recent centuries, but this progress has come at a stark cost.

Liberating the Creation

It’s a cost that the earth cannot bear much longer. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, the creation has been subjected to futility. It is groaning in anticipation, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

We, the human children of God, have a role to play in the liberation of all creation. The freedom and restoration that we experience in Christ is not meant to be limited to women and men, but is to extend to the entire created order – plants and animals, rocks and stars. The reconciliation that is being brought about through Jesus extends not just to Adam and Eve, but to the Garden as well.

Yet, the ideology of the hockey stick graph has so colonized our minds that we tend to imagine that even this reconciliation will follow the script. We expect a sudden consummation of the kingdom – an apocalyptic moment in which everything is set right. And maybe God blows up the whole world in the process. KABOOM!

But what if the new order that Jesus is ushering in is more like a mustard seed – springing up and spreading within the garden, largely unnoticed by the negligent gardener until it is too late to stop the transformation? What if the change we’ve been waiting for comes not through a destructive inferno, but rather through a steady, sustainable process of healing and restoration?

Evangelical Ecotheology?

Those of us who want to follow Jesus should be leading the way in forging this path of cosmic reconciliation. Sadly, Western Christians have often accepted and promoted a worldview that denies the holiness of God’s creation, and our responsibility to be keepers of God’s garden.

Despite the recent indifference – or outright antagonism – of many Christians towards the physical creation, the broad witness of the Bible and Christian thought points to the importance of earth-keeping. Our life as part of the physical, created order matters. The Christian tradition revels in the physical creation of God, and insists on the role of human beings as caretakers for this creation. We can draw on this tradition as we seek to be faithful in our God-given calling to care for the earth.

One resource for looking at what this kind of earthy, embodied theology might look like is the book Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology, recently co-authored by Daniel Brunner, Jennifer Butler, and A.J. Swoboda. They were kind enough to send me a review copy of the book, which I found to be a helpful primer in both the challenges and possibilities we face as Christians in the age of climate change and worldwide ecological crisis.

I particularly appreciate the care with which the authors look at the biblical and church history roots of a theology that is firmly rooted in reverence for God’s physical creation – including our own bodies. As a Quaker, whose tradition often tends to downplay the creation, it is good to be reminded of the profound earthiness of the gospel, and of the Hebrew tradition from which Jesus’ ministry sprang.

I am taking this book as a challenge, encouraging me to more fully engage with the ecological implications of my faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. If the resurrection of Jesus is a cause for joy and wonder, how much more so will it be when we are able to participate in the bodily resurrection of the entire cosmos, which is presently groaning under the weight of death and oppression?

In the Garden with Mary

Our world – the land, air, water, and all the living creatures with whom we share this planet – is undergoing profound suffering. Along with the cries of human grief in these dark times, the whole creation is crying out for the redemption of our bodies. I want to participate in this redemption. I want to bear witness to my faith in Jesus through the way that I care for the broken body of Earth. I want to walk alongside the women, on their way to the tomb early on Sunday morning, in hopes of glimpsing the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. Like Mary, I hope to find him waiting for me in the garden.

I know this path won’t be easy. It’s no coincidence that Mary was weeping when Jesus came to her. The way of resurrection is rooted in repentance, turning away from the false optimism of the hockey stick graph and embracing a life of apparent defeat. The slow growth of sustainable change looks like failure to a world that expects instant pay-off. The kingdom of God seems like weakness in a culture that draws strength from the short-sighted exploitation of the creation – both human and non-human.

I take courage in the fact that Jesus has already demonstrated the power and viability of this slow-cooked gospel. Even if it looks like failure and death in the short term, his way of reconciliation is our only real hope for an earth restored. I want to place my faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, looking for ways to put this hope into practice.

What is your experience of God’s work in the creation? Can you feel the ground crying out? Do you sense the deep springs of life in the trees, the rocks, the plants and animals? Do you see the great Creator staring you in the face in every part of his creation? How will this impact the way that you live in a society that is built atop behavior that degrades and destroys the creation?

I’ll close with this quote from early Quaker leader William Penn, as paraphrased by Paulette Meier:

It would go a great way to caution and direct people in their use of the world, if they understood more about the creation of it. For how should we find the confidence to abuse it when we should see the great Creator stare us in the face in all and every part thereof?

Related Posts:

The White-Hot Gospel

Let the Big Trees Fall

God So Loved The Cosmos

This weekend, I am with Great Plains Yearly Meeting, who are gathering for their annual sessions in Wichita, Kansas. The theme of the gathering is ecological stewardship, and in our Bible study we are exploring Paul’s vision of cosmic restoration in Jesus Christ. Especially because many Christians still associate the environmental movement with New Age spiritualism, it is good for us to engage with the ample biblical witness that calls on us to care for God’s creation.

How could we ever have missed it? From start to finish, from Genesis to Revelation, God has consistently revealed that the wages of sin is death – not just for us, but for all life. We learn in the story of the Fall that humanity’s choice to turn away from God is directly connected with the twisting and destruction of the creation. Throughout the Old Testament God repeatedly reminds humanity that the earth belongs to him, and that we are merely tenants in the land. And in the Book of Revelation, we are warned that God will destroy those who destroy the earth!

God has so much more love than we usually imagine possible. Not only does God love each one of us, and all of humanity, with unceasing faithfulness; he loves the whole of his creation just as much! Sitting in Bible study today, the part of the Scripture that spoke most powerfully to me of this immense love was John 3:16. Yes, I know: This is the verse that men paint on their chests at football games. But seriously, look at it:

For God so loved the world [kosmos] that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

In this verse, the word world is a translation of the Greek word kosmos. Kosmos means the whole of creation, including humanity, but not limited to it. It is this same creation that has been groaning in labor pains for the redemption that comes from God.

Jesus has come to bring healing and fullness to all things! He has come not just for our personal salvation, nor even for the redemption of human beings alone. As followers of Jesus – as children of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – we have the opportunity to share in Christ’s mission of cosmic restoration, speaking peace to the whole earth.

We can feel in our bones that something has gone terribly wrong, not just with our own human existence, but with the entire kosmos. Though it is painful to accept, deep down we know that we are responsible for this disorder, the social and ecological destruction that we have been witnessing for as long as there have been human beings and which in our generation is reaching even greater depths. We know that climate change, environmental degradation, war and disease are all results of our decision to turn away from God and insist on having our own way, on our own timetable.

We know this, both through the revelation given through Scripture and through Christ’s immediate guidance in our lives. We are without excuse. The question is, as it always has been: Will we turn back towards God and allow our lives to be transformed? Will we receive those things that make for peace, wholeness and reconciliation for all of creation? Will we look beyond ourselves and see the boundless love of our Creator, who longs to take us under his wings?


Confession of an Addict

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate. … Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? – Romans 7:15, 24
I am addicted to fossil fuels. I am a slave to them, and I cannot break free. I have tried cutting back; for a period of years I avoided air travel, and I consider carefully how to get from one place to another. But carbon is always lurking, waiting for an opportune time.

It sneaks up on me. I make commitments, promises that I can only keep by drinking deeply from offshore oil rigs. I travel across the country – and occasionally beyond it – in the service of a calling that I believe comes from God. What sense does it make that my addiction should be fueled by what I believe is faithfulness to Christ?

I have often beaten myself up over my carbon abuse. Even as I watch the seas rise, the ice caps melt and droughts afflict whole continents, I continue to burn the very toxins that cause this destruction. What kind of person am I, who cannot break his habit when he sees the pain and suffering he is causing to those around him? I have often hated myself for the ways that my addiction affects the people and other living things that I love.
I have tried to quit so many times. It has become a familiar cycle: I swear off fossil fuels for a while, but soon I succumb to a binge. There is always some trip I need to take that seems so important. And then another, and another. The worst of it is the feeling that I should be able to beatthis thing. If I only had more will power! If I were just more spiritual, I would not be in bondage like this. If I were a better person, I would not hurt those around me through my craven use of carbon.

This morning, however, I no longer feel guilty. I am done with beating myself up. I am ready to take the first step out of denial and confess: I am powerless over my addiction, and my life has become unmanageable. I see that I am incapable of overcoming this addiction on my own, that no amount of personal effort on my part will be able to release me from it.

As those familiar with the 12 Step program will know, there is a next step. Now that I recognize that I am out of control and powerless in the face of my addiction to fossil fuels, I am invited to “believe that a Power greater than myself can restore me to sanity.” And I do believe this. In other areas of my life, Jesus Christ has liberated me from bondage, such as the eating disorder and deep depression that I suffered from as a teenager. I do believe that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

But if I am brutally honest with myself, I have to confess that I am not sure whether I am ready to let God heal me. This addiction feels bigger than most other challenges I have faced in my life. Being released from other forms of darkness have actually had the effect of making me a more successful, better integrated person. I get along better in society because I am not depressed, for example. But breaking my addiction to carbon would almost certainly diminish my ability to fit in. How can I seek sobriety when our entire civilization is founded on intoxication?

I know what needs to be done. I know that my lifestyle is unsustainable. Yet I cannot bring myself to break with it. I simply do not know how to live any other way. This is where I am stuck: aware of my brokenness and need for divine intervention, but unable to take the next step. Lord Jesus, help me take the next step.

Millennials: Shake Off the Shame!

The US Census Bureau recently released a report reveals that, since the beginning of the financial crisis, a growing number of Americans are living with roomates or relatives. The greater part of this increase has come from adult children living with their parents. Millennials, this is about you.

The fact that so many Millennial adults are living with their parents partially hides the fact that our generation has been plunged into a level of unemployment and poverty with no parallel since the Great Depression. If poverty status were determined by personal income, 45.3 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 34 would qualify as living in poverty.Clearly, we are living in a different economic age than the one that many of us were raised to expect.

So many of my generation know from experience how terrible it feels to be scraping by on an absurdly low income, unable to afford both student loan payments and groceries. What is even more demoralizing is that many of us have virtually no income, and millions are forced to rely on parents and relatives to provide even the most basic needs while we work unpaid internships or desperately search for work. No matter how you slice it, being broke is awful.
But lack of money is not the worst of it. The truth is, most people my age are coming to terms with our economic diminishment. We know that we will probably never be as materially prosperous as our parents were, but we know that this is not necessarily a tragedy. We are acutely aware of the environmental, social and health impacts of the consumerist binge of the late 20th century, and many of us do not feel deprived to not be able to participate. On the contrary, thrift is increasingly becoming a virtue, and care for the earth is a very real consideration in our spending choices. We are willing to pay more, and to live less luxuriously, if it means that we can inhabit a healthier, more sustainable world.
So, if many of us are content living with less, what is the problem? One word: Jobs. I am confident that my generation can thrive in a world where unrestrained luxury gives way to global responsibility and sustainability. That is the world that we want to live in. But being chronically jobless or underemployed is not sustainable. The prolonged drought of meaningful employment is tearing my generation down in slow motion.It is crippling us professionally, emotionally and spiritually. And we will bear the scars for decades to come.

In his new book, End This Depression Now!, economist Paul Krugman observes that, “People who want to work but can’t find work suffer greatly, not just from the loss of income but from a diminished sense of self-worth.” The youngest cohort of adults today are not simply facing a loss of income, we are facing a loss of meaning. Who are we? What is our purpose? What value do we offer a society that tells us repeatedly and simultaneously: “We don’t need you,” and “Why don’t you grow up?”

There do not seem to be any easy answers to the challenges that we are facing on the level of economics and public policy. It may be many years before the job market returns to what was once considered “normal.” In the meantime, however, we Millennials are going to have to make sense of our lives, often in the absence of meaningful employment. What might this look like? How can we shed the shame and feelings of personal failure that come with un(der)employment and begin to look for ways to empower ourselves, regardless of the economic outlook?
If anything is clear by now, it is that older generations are not going to provide us with systems of meaning. It might be tempting to go into a holding pattern, to cross our fingers and hope that our economy and sense of core values will eventually recover. But I do not think that is good strategy. Instead, how might we focus our energies to create the just, healthy, sustainable and meaningful society that we long for? The answer to this question will undoubtably involve a lot of tough, entreprenurial work – work that will go largely unsupported by the dying systems and institutions that are clawing for survival right now. Birthing a new society in the crumbling ruins of the old will not be easy.

But I believe we can do it. Time and again, older generations have asked us, “when will you grow up?” Now is the time to demonstrate that we aregrown – but that our adulthood does not conform to 20th century assumptions. We can model a responsible, sustainable adulthood that produces the fruits of justice: A society in which the poor are not crushed, the earth is not ravished, and there is meaningful work for everyone who is willing to contribute. The time has come to shake off the shame that we have lived under for so long and to embrace the power that is latent in our generation, if only we will choose to exercise it.

Hope in Dark Days

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirst for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

-Psalm 63:1

There are predictions that the next two years in the United States Congress are likely to be characterized by gridlock, with little seriousCapitol by Night legislation being passed. In particular, with the new composition of the House, any measures to address environmental destruction and the climate crisis are almost guaranteed to be blocked from consideration. Things were bad enough under Democratic leadership: with both parties firmly in the grip of big industry and the oil companies, Democratic majorities did not translate into serious change. Now that Republicans are resurgent, things could get much worse.

My country feels out of control, embattled and divided. The middle class is faltering as the rich grow richer and the situation of the poor grows even more desperate. Corporations are now granted most of the rights of human beings, and the level of corruption in our country is growing to proportions that I used to associate with developing nations. We have been at war for nine years. No one has suggested when the endless campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, and various unofficial fronts, might end. Under the banner of the War on Terror, a technologically-enhanced surveillance society is developing that could make Orwell’s worst nightmares look quaint.

In times such as these, when it is so clear that we are out of control as a people, I need to know that a sovereign God is at theBoarding DC Metro helm. With evil running amok and our planet facing horrific destruction, I need to know that there is an infinite ocean of light and love that flows over the ocean of darkness and death. I need the boundless love of God, and I need the compassionate accompaniment of Jesus Christ to help me live a life rooted and confident in that love, despite all outward appearance of evil’s triumph.

I need hope of the resurrection; I need assurance of things not seen. I need eyes to see the in-breaking of God’s beauty in a world that human sin has twisted and distorted. I need awareness of Christ’s living presence, not only as a comfort in my grief, but also as an agent of cosmic liberation in a world that is weighed down by oppression.

I need hope so that I can carry on in the humble task of being salt and light. Nothing fancy – just table salt and candle light – butJust add salt essential. I need hope in the resurrection so that I can let go of my longing for worldly power and embrace Christ’s way of the suffering servant, taking on the form of a slave and emptying myself so that I can be of service to all. Rather than imitating the rulers of this world, seeking to lay hold of their power for my own ends, I pray to learn trust in Christ’s living presence, so that I may surrender all dominion, power and glory to him.

Membership, Covenant and Engagement: Engaging with the World

When we invite Christ into our midst, we can expect to be changed. As we open the door for Jesus to enter in, he transforms us inside and outside; God’s refining fire works for our redemption as individuals and as communities. But that is not the end of the story. Christ’s ministry of reconciliation will not be finished until all of creation has received his love and turned from darkness to light. We as followers of the Way are being refashioned for a purpose: to become partners in Christ’s work of cosmic restoration.

As Christ’s Light cleanses and redeems us inwardly, our outward lives will begin to reflect the radiant joy and peace of God. We become instruments of Christ’s universal ministry of love and peace. The Holy Spirit re-orders our lives and prepares us so that we can be of service in the specific mission that God has for us, both as individuals and as communities.

Faithful in Context

As Jesus’ modern-day disciples, it is not enough for us to know general truth; we must be faithful in applying it to specific contexts.Man holding flag at Obama inauguration, 2009 For example, we are all called to worship only God, rejecting anything else that demands our ultimate loyalty. However, Christ guides different communities to engage with their particular contexts in different ways.

Here in Washington, DC, the Quaker Christian community that I am a part of struggles with how to reconcile our faith in Jesus with the idolatrous demands that government, corporations and powerful interests place on us as citizens. In our context, we feel particularly led to wrestle as a community with how we relate to the structures of global power that are based in our city (and where some of us work!). We know that we are called to lead lives of undivided loyalty to God, even as we live and work in the heart of the greatest imperial power the world has ever known.

Other communities are led in different directions to be faithful to the same core commandment. For instance, one Christian community that I was a part of in Richmond, Indiana, placed its focus on reclaiming the things that the wider society threw away. Dumpster diving for food and renovating run-down houses was a large part of what God called us to; this was both a witness to the power of God to overcome the idolatry of materialism, as well as a basis of a new community, gathered in Christ from a wide variety of religious, educational and class backgrounds.

Though the specifics of our calling in Christ may vary from community to community, we can trust that God will always haveRenaissance House, Richmond, Indiana work for us to do. Wherever two or three gather together in the name of Jesus, not only will he be there among us, but he will also have a mission for us.(1) Christ gathers us not only so that we might find redemption in him as individuals and as a community; he also desires to forge us into a body that can serve the world in his name. There can be no faith without works,(2) and Christ is present with us to guide us in labors of mercy, restoration and justice that demonstrate the power and abiding love of God to the world.

Following Christ’s Lead

As we wait on God as a community, opening ourselves up to whatever the Holy Spirit might ask of us, we will find the particular mission that we are called to, both as individuals and as a wider fellowship. Because of our overwhelming individualism, however, it is often easier for us to act individually than to unite as a community to act on a leading from the Lord.

Sometimes this is appropriate. Some leadings are meant just for the individual. An example of an individual leading is my decision toEarlham School of Religion attend seminary. I felt a firm sense that I should study at Earlham School of Religion, despite the fact that this would interfere with other goals and relationships that I had at the time. Though it demanded personal sacrifice, I yielded to the prompting I felt from God to pursue studies at ESR, and in retrospect I feel certain that this was God’s will for me.

Even this leading was not totally individual – I still needed help in discernment from my church, as well as financial assistance during my time at ESR. However, the decision to attend seminary, and the responsibility to undertake the lifestyle changes necessary to fulfill this leading was ultimately my own. I, personally, had to make the decision and bear most of the burden to carry it out.

Engaging as One Body

There are many times, though, when God desires to use an entire congregation, or even denomination, for a specific purpose. SomeDistributing food in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, Mexico leadings are given not primarily to individuals, but to entire communities. As counter-intuitive as it is for us as western people, there are some leadings that only the body of believers can effectively respond to, no matter how passionately some individuals might feel. A good example is the abolition of slavery.

Not so long ago, slavery was regarded in most of the western world as not only legal and socially acceptable, but as ordained of God and authorized by Scripture. There was enormous resistance to any hint of abolition – not only from the slave traders and plantation owners, but from the Church itself. Most Christians – including Quakers – interpreted the Bible as allowing slavery, and this understanding was a powerful roadblock to justice.

There were many individuals who felt the Holy Spirit telling them that slavery was sin. These individuals divested themselves of theFriends at Ohio Yearly Meeting, 2009 slave trade, refusing to participate. But this was not enough. Individual non-participation in the slave trade would not end this great evil that permeated American life. It took decades of painful reflection and discernment, but, thanks to the prophetic witness of some individual Quakers like John Woolman, Friends eventually came to the conclusion that they could not permit slave-holding by any of their members. The Religious Society of Friends banned slavery for its members, almost one hundred years before a catastrophic war would bring an end to the practice throughout the United States.

It is important to note that the first instinct of these individual concerned Friends was not to lobby the government to end slavery. Instead, they brought their sense of conviction to the Yearly Meeting; they sought unity within the Body of Christ for this leading that was far too large for any individual to appropriately address. This was a case where Christ was calling upon the Church as a whole to take a stand.

A Justice-Seeking Church

Today, there are a number of issues that confront us that may only be confronted by communities acting under a sense of divine
Bicyclist at Earlham College leading. Care for the creation is a good example. The global ecological crisis that we are facing, including climate change, deforestation and loss of biodiversity, are a threat to all life and disproportionately affect the poor and marginalized. The systems involved in this crisis involve almost everyone living on earth, and the solutions must be equally far-reaching in their scope. While we are certainly called as individuals to change our lifestyles to confront this systemic sin, individual choices are simply not sufficient to address the problem. Many Christians today are convinced that the Church as a whole must take action in order to avert enormous suffering and irreversible damage to God’s creation.(3)

As we come into real, living relationship with Jesus Christ, our previous sense of boundaries between the self, the Church, and the wider world is bound to change. Christ will not be limited to making demands only on the individual; he wants to reign in the Church as a whole, to guide us as a people. In order to respond to Christ’s calling for us today, we must embrace a radical life of covenant community that listens and obeys together. It is in discovering God’s mission for us as a community that we find our true identity – not merely as individual Christians, but as vital members of the Body of Christ.

1. Matthew 18:20
2. James 2:14-26
3. For examples, see: Christian Ecology Link, Quaker Earthcare Witness, and Evangelical Environmental Network

Can Quakerism Survive the Airplane?

One of the greatest challenges for this generation of Quakerism will be figuring out how to adapt our traditional practices to a society in which human mobility and information technology have reached a level never seen before. For the first three hundred years or so, the Religious Society of Friends could count on a certain level of geographical stability on the part of its membership. Most people lived and died in the same time zone. When Friends did move, we often did so as a community, re-establishing our social context wherever we migrated to – be it Rhode Island, the Carolinas, Ohio, Kansas or Oregon.

Our present generation lacks the stability – dedication to place and community – that was normative for the first three centuries of our history. All of our structures – Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings; Ministry, Eldership and Oversight; and the seemingly endless committee structures that have blossomed over the years – all of them were developed in the context of geographically stable, covenantal community.

How might Friends today adapt to the radical itinerancy of our (post) modern context? How do we maintain the spirit of our tradition while re-examining the old forms that often seem poorly adapted to our new situation? How are we being called to re-evaluate our lifestyles to discern when our lives ought to conform themselves to tradition, rather than insisting that tradition conform itself to the exigencies of mainstream 21st-century society?

Are we being called to question our radical mobility? What are the social consequences of our detachment from place? What are the ecological consequences of our dependence on fossil-fueled transportation, particularly air travel? What are the spiritual ramifications of our choice to participate in the wider culture’s nonchalance about place, community and rootedness?