On May 5th, at a board meeting for the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group, the chair asked if I would open the meeting with prayer. Then he added, “it seems particularly appropriate today.” A little confused, I asked, “Because it’s Cinco de Mayo?” and he said, “No, because it’s the National Day of Prayer.” The other board members looked slightly scandalized that I didn't know that. I laughed and wondered out loud if I’ve become too secularized since leaving the church. Sometimes I feel like an SNL skit called “Bad Pastor.”
As the church is changing (and we all know it is) I think my role within it wants to change as well. And I’m not the only one. I’ve had dozens of conversations with faithful friends who all say essentially the same thing, “We love Jesus, but church isn’t where we’re finding Him anymore.” Something is stirring that says we need to re-connect with the things we love; the things we’re passionate about; which may or may not include budgets or buildings, committees or potlucks. The church should ideally be a gathering of people who love Jesus, living out their unique calling in the world. I want serve, and I want to serve in a capacity that focuses on those things God has placed on my heart, not those things God has placed on somebody else’s heart.
When a colleague recently started talking about forming a new outdoor worshipping community which would come together around the idea of caring for the natural world, I realized that I’ve been quietly grappling with a theological dilemma for years. When I went to Seminary in 2001, Christian environmental ethics was in its infancy as a subject worthy of theological reflection. For me, environmentalism has been a lifelong passion. I was green before it was cool. The activities I chose as hobbies — birding, gardening, hiking, kayaking — reflect my deeply rooted love of the natural world.
The theological education I received at Princeton was mostly anthropocentric, meaning we mostly discussed what the good news of the Gospel meant for humanity. The evangelical church where I cut my theological teeth focused on individual human salvation. Acceptable mission initiatives were about human issues — homelessness, food pantries, educating the poor in Honduras, divorce recovery workshops, etc. As my pastoral identity was forming, the steady diet of theological education and church experience I was receiving told me the only valid ministries of the church involved helping people.
As it turns out, that’s not a complete picture. After digesting that meal for the better part of 15 years, I’ve come to realize that there is an entirely acceptable and God-given mission to “till the garden and keep it.” That’s one of the first instructions God gives to Adam, even before the apple incident. The book of Genesis records it in the second chapter: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Maybe that, in a nutshell, is what “green” Christians are supposed to do. Both of those verbs, “to till” and “to keep” have a sense of caring. The Hebrew word we translate “to keep” (shamar) is the same verb that’s used in the blessing, “The Lord bless you and keep you.”
God instructed that we “till the garden and keep it,” but we’ve gotten it wildly wrong: smog, melting ice caps, carrier pigeons…you get the gist. It's a hot mess. Maybe, ministry and mission can be about trying to undo the damage we’ve done.
I have a feeling we’ve been circling the issue, examining it from all sides — trying to get our heads around the problem: Why are we here and what does it all mean? In the end, I don’t think it will be all that complicated. Love God in a way that feels real and authentic to you.
I want to declare to anyone who’s listening that it is absolutely faithful and “Christian” to be concerned about the planet and the integrity of the natural world. Own it as an expression of your faith and God’s unique call on your life. It’s time for a holistic approach to the Church and the practice of faith, which is not exclusively one type of activity over another. It is a general posture in life, so that all of life reflects a deep reverence and appreciation for the things that matter to God.