The Green Grace of God
In my office just beyond that stained glass window, I keep a number
of pictures and carvings that are meaningful to me. I have a photograph
that I took twenty-five years ago in Maine, which shows the big sign in
front of a non-denominational church called the Truth Tabernacle, and
on the sign is written "Jesus Christ: the same yesterday and today
and forever," from Hebrews. And nailed to that sign is another
that says, "For Sale by Owner." I still haven't figured that
I also have some plaques and a piece of the Berlin Wall, but over my
desk is a simple poster that I bought in Italy, and it is a picture of
Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds a few miles from where my
family has traveled.
The Roman Catholic Church is just now celebrating 800 years since
what they call the conversion of Francis. October 4th, last Wednesday,
is his feast day, and this is the first year in several that I haven't blessed
animals in his memory here, partially because two of our good
organizers have moved. But I love Francis very much, and I can't learn
enough about him.
Francis is giving the current Pope palpitations because he would
dialogue with Muslims, and every decade there is a major multi-faith
prayer gathering in Assisi, all of which causes Vatican headaches, but
if you know his own story very well you know that Francis lived a mere
forty-four years and that even though he had thousands of followers
during his lifetime, he believed personally that he only had about five
or perhaps ten effective years of accomplishing his own hopes, and
after that everything was out of control.
The conversion experience that is cited, which began in 1205, was
the result of his rather wealthy and privileged childhood and teen
years, which led to his pursuit of honor though military service as a
knight, yet each time he tried to go to war he got horribly sick, and
so he fell into a giant funk, if not depression about his whole
condition. And in that state he spent a lot of time in an abandoned
church with a huge, beautiful cross which is still in Assisi today, and
one day, alone, he heard a message from the cross.
This is a colorful cross with an upright Jesus whose eyes are open
and who doesn't look terribly injured. It is an honest faced Jesus, and
in this abandoned church Francis simply heard, "My house is in ruins. Rebuild
Francis' wealthy father, avaricious Bishop, and friendly Pope all
thought he was either a little bit or a lot crazy. But he just started
rebuilding the falling down church, humbly and patiently. And in his
poverty, his simplicity, and his focus, he started rebuilding the
entire Christian Church as folks from every part of it will
acknowledge. He brought us back to essentials, by example. And part of
his example was his harmony with nature, with animals, birds, sun and
moon and earth, and he called them his sisters and brothers and family,
identifying himself as perhaps the first environmentalist Christian.
This conversion that Francis underwent actually took years. It made
full sense only in retrospect. If I'm going to hear a voice from a
cross, I'd frankly like it to be clear and articulate, but even those
who were writing to promote the strength of his vision when Francis was
being canonized right after his death said that all he reported was
that he heard "a tender voice." To this day we know pastors
and presidents who affirm that they hear the voice of God with much
more clarity than Francis claimed. He wasn't exactly sure about the
call to repair God's house, but did his best to pursue it, even amidst
many years of doubt, unanswered prayer, and questioning. Indeed he
wrote very little to explain himself except for his poetry about
creation and our relationship to all life and things beyond the
immediate, such as the sun and moon and even death. He preached to
birds, converted at least one wolf (it is said), and endeavored to
leave a very tender footprint on the farmland where he lived as a point
of reverence and love and peace.
Ultimately Francis wasn't sure if God's house meant the little
falling down church or all the local churches or the Vatican or the
faith. In the scriptures, similar words mean temple or community, but
sometimes they mean all creation and even what is beyond creation, that
is, heaven and earth. God's dwelling place is with people, we read, but
also the heavens and all the earth. Thinking about this anniversary
this past week, I wonder if Francis has inspiration and meaning to the
emerging Christian environmental movement, which is getting most of its
current steam from conservative and evangelical communities. I wonder
if God's dwelling needs some care.
This Wednesday, ordained UCC minister Bill Moyers will run a special
on PBS called Is God Green? He's going to look at the connection
between Christian faith and new conservatism that means conservation. And I'm
very hopeful that this connection is a bountiful one, as it might be.
What has been happening in recent years is that folks who have been
reading the Bible literally have honorably reckoned with the fact that
what it says in Genesis in the creation stories, and what is implied in
Revelation in the accounts of how the world is judged, if you will,
calls for people of faith to exercise dominion not as a measure of
domination, but like the deity. We are asked to be sensitive to
creation as though we were partners with the creator, not prodigal like
the bad son. Being made in the image of God was early understood to
mean that we have a responsibility to the creation. And while it took
many centuries for our self-regard (which is one of the simplest
definitions of sin) to be dangerous to the planet, it has become so,
and it's time to modify our ways.
Did you know that in order to satisfy our energy needs, in the state
of West Virginia alone three million pounds of explosives are used each
day -- each day -- to uncover coal, generally leaving open land sores?
Did you know that the world's population now creates seven billion with
a "B" metric tons, 7 billion tons of greenhouse gases each
Here's something scary that I did the other day. I followed the
links on the PBS website to a calculator that asks how many miles you
drive and fly each year and how much electricity and heating fuel you
use each month. It gathers all of that -- totally leaving out your
office, second home or farm equipment -- and it tells you how many tons
of carbon dioxide you produce each year. Now, neither my wife nor I
commute with a car, and we did insulate the pipes at the Parsonage and
put on some new storm windows, yet my personal calculation is ten
metric tons of CO2 each year. Many Americans produce twenty.
But I make 147 times my weight in gas each year, which is embarrassing.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says that he lives in a very clean and
privileged location, as safe as any in America, yet has several kids
with asthma and asks, why is this? What have we done to our air and
In 1970 I went to Lake Erie and did a high school photo essay as a
science project recording commercial locations that were piping their
refuse and sewage and chemicals right into that Great Lake. It took
about two hours before I had more pictures than I could need, because
the pipes were everywhere, so I quit early. Now our nation has quit
that, too: today we have meaningful standards and practices, and many
things have been getting much better since those bad old days, which is
Today, many of us are environmentalists for political and
philosophical or even economic reasons, and that is fine news, too. But
Christianity offers a deeper call.
The stories of creation call us to live in harmony and almost
paternal community with our environment. They ask us to express our
reverence for God in our attention to creation. And the voice of Jesus
prays that we will all be one, like liberals and conservatives finding
faith's common ground in conservation. Our faith calls us to deep
concern and care for our environment.
Last week I reflected on what a high percentage of people who
counsel with me talk about how they find their spiritual restoration in
nature, by the ocean, or upon a mountain. I believe we have a
God-given, built-in association with our environment. As Eve came from
Adam's rib in that one story, so Adam came from Earth, and it is in all
of our fibers. On this weekend, when fortunate folks will leaf-peep, we
affirm again our embrace of the wonders of the trees of life and the
grandeur of God's good way.
So is God green? What else do we need to know about our theology and
background to give us insight and inspiration in this arena? What else
do we need to do?
I heard an intriguing statement on the radio about a week ago,
although I didn't like the dichotomy. It said that one hundred years
from now, what happens in Iraq may be long forgotten in the history of
the world. But what we do about the environment in our time will
literally shape that history.
The voice of faith calls us to be one, liberals and conservatives,
finding common ground in both theology and conservation. And this
tender voice is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, which frankly
is good news for God's dwelling and for us. If we have ears to hear.
Copyright © 2006
Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.