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Matthew Sleeth was an emergency room physician and chief of the medical staff at an east coast hospital. He drove a sleek car, owned a McMansion and possessed countless luxuries. Yet, all was not right with his soul. For years, he had believed that science and reasoning could solve whatever problems the world encountered. However, he was constantly being confronted by facts to the contrary. The patients he was seeing and the world he was observing led him to the conclusion that the world is dying.
Sleeth writes, "The last of the majestic chestnut trees near my childhood home are now extinct. There are no chestnuts on Chestnut Lane, no caribou in Caribou, Maine, and no buffalo in Buffalo, New York. Multiple states have had to change their official tree, animal or flower because they are now extinct."1
Paralleling his growing awareness of the elimination of living things on earth was his recognition of a disturbing increase in cancer. A few months before going on a summer vacation, he "had admitted three women to the hospital. All three were in their thirties, all three had breast cancer and all three died...Later he wondered about the lifetime risk of breast cancer, so he looked it up. When he started medicine, 1 in 19 women in America got breast cancer. At the time he saw the three women, the same updated medical text said it was 1 in 9. Now, a few years later, it is 1 in 7 ...and the most dramatic increases are in young people. Similarly, there have been increases in asthma, autoimmune diseases, autism, and other maladies, which many believe have direct environmental links. No one can assume that these trends can continue unchanged and everything will turn out all right."2
We are living at a critical moment in the history of the world. We are overpopulating the planet, polluting the environment and draining the earth of its precious resources. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the population of the world was 1.6 billion. Today, it is more than 6.6 billion. My grandfather could drink water from rivers and streams with little concern. Today we worry about the amount of fish we can consume before accumulating too much mercury in our bodies.
Raise your hand if you have owned a dog sometime in the past 10 years. Did you know that the cancer rate in dogs is higher than in humans? Dogs are four times more likely to suffer from breast cancer and eight times more likely to develop bone cancer.3
What are we doing to our planet? Who is to blame? I have not cut down one tree in the Amazon rainforest. I have not dumped mercury into the ocean. I have not put lead into paint. I have not killed a baby seal for its fur or an elephant for its tusks. The problem must be other people.
Our tendency is to point the blame elsewhere. We are living in an age when no one wants to take responsibility for anything. Everyone seems to be saying "The buck stops...there! Testifying about the meltdown in the financial sector, the former chair of the Federal Reserve portrayed himself as an innocent bystander to market forces beyond his control. The former head of Citigroup described the implosion of Wall Street as a crisis that no one saw coming.
The Vatican blames the press and anti-Catholic sentiment for its troubles,4 rather than admitting who was responsible for shuffling pedophile priests to different parishes. In the early days of the Iraq war when Iraqis celebrated Saddam Hussein's downfall, our leaders were proud to take credit for the invasion. But once we realized we had ignited a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites, had eliminated the counterbalance to Iran and that there were no weapons of mass destruction - the premise for the war - suddenly no one wanted to take responsibility. The whole fiasco was blamed on faulty intelligence.
The same dynamic seems to be in play when we talk about the damage we are doing to the environment. "They" are responsible; the people who make the laws and the owners of mining companies and the people who turn woodlands into condos. However, as long as we point the finger elsewhere while not supporting laws that protect God's creation, and as long as we fail to examine the impact that each of us is having on the earth, the downward spiral will continue.
How well are we caring for ourselves, our fellow human beings and all the living creatures of the earth? This morning's passage from the first chapter of the first book of the Bible reminds us that God creates the world and then put us in charge of life on planet earth. After creating the resources and the living creatures of the earth, God created human beings. And God said, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish, the birds and every living thing." And far too many people use these words as a license to plunder the earth. The passage warrants no such thing.
Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann points out that the dominion we are to exercise is like "the dominance of a shepherd who cares for, tends and feeds the animals...the task of 'dominion' has nothing to do with exploitation and abuse. It has everything to do with securing the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition...Moreover, a Christian understanding of dominion must be in harmony with the way of Jesus. The one who rules is the one who serves. Lordship means servanthood....[Humans are] ordained over the creation for its well-being and enhancement."5
The scriptures do not call for us to be exploiters, but rather stewards of God's creation. The point of this passage is that God gives human beings a tremendous responsibility. We are put in charge of God's creation and expected to be good managers of its resources. How well are we doing with our lofty authority?
For several years, our family owned a sport utility vehicle. I reasoned that the main purpose of owning it was safety. It was large and would protect us in a crash. Being heavy, it did not get good gas mileage. Burning more fuel meant that we were putting more pollutants into the atmosphere, using more of a diminishing resource and sending more money overseas to support governments that deny religious freedom and outlaw democracy. So a few years ago, when it came time to replace that vehicle, I found a car that was proven to be much safer in wrecks, had just slightly less room inside for storage and got seven more miles to the gallon. It was not an ideal solution because the car does not get more than 30 miles to the gallon, and some of you own cars that do. But it was a move in the right direction and perhaps serves as an example of the kind of decisions each of us must face.
Each day we can do something to conserve energy and do a better job of caring for God's creation. Some of us can turn the thermostat down a couple of degrees in the winter and wear warmer clothing. When air conditioning season rolls around we do not have to keep our houses the temperature of a walk-in freezer. Most of us leave on too many lights. Some have the television running when no one is watching. I wish that all homes had an electric meter in a prominent place inside to show how much energy we are continuously using. If you have never gone outside and watched the meter spin while you are running the clothes dryer you, will be shocked to see how much energy it requires. It may prompt you to hang a few more wet things to dry on a clothes rack.
Unfortunately, many of us base most of our decisions not on what is best for the environment, but on whether or not we can afford it. We reason, "I can afford to keep my house warmer. I can afford to run my clothes dryer. I can afford to pay for the gas in my fuel inefficient car." However, if we seek to deepen our spiritual lives and draw nearer to God, our decision-making will not be based on our wealth. It will be based on whether or not we are fulfilling our role as a caretaker of God's creation.
What changes would take place in your daily behavior, if you were constantly asking yourself, "Does God view what I am presently doing as truly caring for God's creation?" Would you walk more? Would you make one trip in the car to cover several errands, rather than single trips for each? Would you buy more locally grown produce that does not require being shipped across the country? Would you recycle more and throwaway less? Would you take a shorter shower? Use fewer paper towels? Plant a tree? Eat less beef? Swear off bottled water? Fix leaky faucets? Do you take the world and its resources for granted, or do you express your gratitude to God by respecting this amazing earth God has given us?
In the past couple of generations, many Christians have awakened to caring for the planet as an essential part of their spiritual journey, but respecting God's creation is nothing new. In the 12th century, Francis of Assisi constantly reminded followers of Christ that failing to recognize the earth and its living creatures as precious and worthy of our devotion, is a brazen display of contempt for our Creator.
Numerous stories are told of Francis's love for animals. One that illustrates his love of nature tells of an occasion when Francis was walking down a road with companions. They came upon a place where the trees were filled with birds. Francis said to those traveling with him, "wait for me while I preach to my sisters the birds." According to the story, the birds were drawn to him and surrounded him and he said, "My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to God; for God has given you freedom to wing through the sky and has clothed you... you neither sow nor reap, yet God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests...for the Creator loves you greatly and blesses you abundantly. Therefore... always seek to praise God."6
Imagine what greater care we would give to God's creation and what closer connection to God we would experience if we were so crazy for Christ that we would pause to speak to the birds.
Jesus said that those who strive to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for his sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save them. (Mark 8:35) We lose our lives when we fail to live as God calls us to live. We lose our lives when we neglect people in need. We lose our lives when we use oil as if there is an endless supply; when we pollute the air; when we pour chemicals into our rivers. We lose our lives when we pass along to our grandchildren a planet that is in worse shape than the one that was passed along to us.
But, we save our lives! We save them, when we examine our behavior and make concrete changes that demonstrate to God that we are truly grateful for and we are striving to be good stewards of this amazing world God has given us.
1. Matthew Sleeth, "The Power of a Green God," in The Green Bible, (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008), p.I-17.
2. Ibid., p.I-18.
3. According to recent statistics in VPI pet insurance.
4. Frank Rich, "No One Is to Blame for Anything," New York Times, April 11, 2010.
5. Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), pgs. 32-33.
6. From St. Bonaventure's The Life of St. Francis of Assisi.
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