Friday, May 23, 2014

Rainbow Garden - A Blessing of Promise and Promise of Blessing

I am a huge fan of Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods.  He argues that in order to save our children from "nature-deficit disorder" we need to get them unplugged from electronics and outside to play, get dirty, explore, and fall in love with the natural world.  The end of the book includes a list of 100 creative and simple suggestions for getting children engaged with nature.  One of them includes having them plant a garden. 
So when my 10-year-old daughter Rachel announced that she wanted to "redecorate" the weed-patch around the front of our house, I was thrilled.  She has been planning for weeks to create a "rainbow garden" around the steps of our front stoop.  Her 7-year-old brother Benjamin also wanted to be included in the work. Today we went to the local country store and bought flowers in all colors of the rainbow.  And they discovered the wonderful aroma of cocoa shell mulch!  "Smells like chocolate!" they exclaimed when they sniffed the bag.  They couldn't wait to get started.

I warned them that it would be hard work - all the digging, pulling weeds and mulching.  They assured me they were up to the challenge.   So we brought out the spade, trowel and diggers.  We spent an hour on just a 6-cubic-foot area taking turns pulling up the stubborn weeds, turning over the clumps of dirt, and smoothing the loosened soil.  We discovered a world of grubs, earth worms and ants amid the labyrinth of roots and rocks.  Eventually the ground was ready to receive the new plants.  Rachel placed them in appropriate spacing, carefully thinking through size and color.  I taught her how to dig a hole just the right size, how to turn over the potted flower, gently tap and squeeze it from the bottom, loosen the roots and set it in the ground.  We nested the plants in their new home.  Finally it was time for the spreading of the cocoa mulch.  They were tempted to chew on a few pieces, it smelled so chocolatey!
They were thrilled with how they had transformed the weedy area into a place of beauty that stimulated all the senses.  Just as we were finishing up, a light rain began to fall.  As we took the tools back to the garage, I remembered how just a few weeks ago we had taken these very items to church for Creation Care Sunday.  We placed them on the altar and the congregation blessed them, along with seeds, soil, and water.  Now these same recipients of blessing had returned the favor!

As I walked back out of the garage, I saw a rainbow appear in the distance, my son pointing excitedly. 

There was the arc of water and light refracted into the very colors we had just planted in our rainbow garden.  Coincidence?  If so, a blessed one.

Tags:  children, gardening, nature-deficit disorder, rainbow, creation-care

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Talkin' Turkey

The joys of serving in a rural congregation: inviting local turkeys to church

Ecotheological Commentary: Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A

Readings for Year A -- 2013 - 2014
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary by Leah Schade

Fifth Sunday of Easter in Year A

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house,” said Peter in his letter (1 Peter 2:4). What does it mean to be a living stone? How can a stone be alive?

Time magazine recently featured an article about a global effort to photo-document and study coral reefs using state-of-the-art technology (Bryan Walsh, "Ocean View." Time, April 14, 2014). According to the article, about one-third of everything that lives in the ocean lives in a coral reef. Coral is a living organism, even though at first glance it just looks and feels like colorful rock formations.

We might say that coral is like a living stone. “Corals are tiny invertebrates that exist in symbiosis with photosynthetic single-cell algae called zooxanthellae, which live inside the coral’s tissue. (The zooxanthellae provide food to the coral by converting sunlight into energy.) Corals build up hard exoskeletons made of layers of secreted calcium carbonate, which form the reef” (p. 43). The structure is sturdy and yet porous, allowing water to flow through it, absorbing nutrients, housing microscopic life forms. Coral reefs provide habitat, food and spawning grounds for countless species of fish and ocean plants. “In a healthy reef, you can see everything from tiny gobies to predatory sharks swimming amid a network of coral as intricate as a medieval cathedral” (p. 43).
Coral reef near Fiji
Seeing images of these coral reefs brings to mind Jesus’ metaphor for the dwelling place of God: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2). What better way to think about the infinite hospitality of God than to compare it to a beautiful stretch of coral reef hosting so many different life forms! Psalm 31 also reinforces the imagery of God as a sanctuary of rock, strong and protective—similar to the coral reef that hosts a dazzling array of life-forms. “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge . . . Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. You are indeed my rock and my fortress” (Psalm 31:1, 2-3). The preacher with access to Powerpoint and a screen for worship services may want to project images of coral reefs so that congregants can have these colorful cathedrals in mind as they make the connection between God as sanctuary and rock and Jesus as living stone.

For some churches, May 18 is the day to celebrate Volunteer Recognition Sunday. It is a time to recognize the infinite variety of gifts that each of us brings to the church. We might think of the church as a beautiful coral reef, playing host to so many different individuals and families, an entire ecosystem of faith. Each person has something to contribute to the coral reef of the church. And as a spiritual house of living stones, we each are nurtured by this community, this ecosystem of faith. 

But like the coral reefs in our planet’s oceans, church ecosystems are sensitive to systemic and environmental conditions. The Time article listed overfishing, coastal overpollution and development, global warming and ocean acidification as all having detrimental effects on our oceans’ coral reefs. 
Seventy-five percent of the world’s reefs are threatened. In some locations coral cover has dropped from 80% to 13% over the course of the last twenty-five years.
A parallel can be seen in the state of our churches as well. The ecosystems of faith that used to thrive in our society are now finding the conditions around us to be increasingly hostile to the life of the church. Secularization, competition for parishioners’ time, the “pollution” of Sabbath-time by commerce, the growth of “the nones” (folks who indicate adherence to “no religion” in surveys), and the perceived irrelevancy of churches and faith to growing numbers of people are all having detrimental effects on our churches.

What many do not realize, however, is just how valuable the church is to society. The same is true for coral reefs which often go unrecognized for just how much they contribute to our food supply, our economies, and even our medical treatments. Similarly, the church throughout history to the present day has been responsible for much good that most people take for granted. Charity toward widows and orphans, hospitals, public education, the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, not to mention the raising of children with strong moral and ethical values, have all had their origins in churches and other houses of worship, and have had a profoundly positive impact on human society over the centuries. Today, churches contribute much to their communities and society in general by addressing poverty and assisting the poor, responding to natural disasters, providing relief to refugees, advocating for society’s most vulnerable citizens, providing counseling and spiritual direction, distributing food and clothing, and providing leadership and resources for justice issues. Too, some of the greatest leaders lifting up and inspiring humanity’s highest ideals have arisen from churches.

The Time article noted that public attention to the plight of coral reefs has suffered because these underwater kingdoms are not easy to see. Very few people ever get to swim amid coral reefs. And there hasn’t been much photo-documentation of these fragile ecosystems. That’s one of the reasons the new 360-degree cameras they are using to photograph the ocean floor are so important (similarly to the way Google Earth has shown us the surface of our planet in astounding ways). Oceanographers have come to recognize the truth of a familiar adage: we will not save what we do not love. Thus they are doing their best to help us fall in love with our coral reefs so that as a human species we will take steps to preserve what is left.

Churches, too, have suffered from lack of visibility and accessibility. Very few people in society come into our churches—swim amid our coral reefs, so to speak. That’s why it’s so important to tell people what goes on in our churches, what great work we do to serve local communities and the larger society. I’ve often mused that churches need to hire publicity directors and public relations experts so that, like the oceanographers who bring these images of the reefs to light, the contributions of our churches can be highlighted in our communities. People will not save what they do not love. We should help people to fall in love with our churches, even if they do not attend them, so that they will come to cherish the incredibly valuable “ecosystems of faith” in our society and communities.

In the sermon, the preacher might show and pass around pieces of coral. Let them feel the strength and texture of the “living stone.” Let them see the tiny holes where the algae live. Let them imagine their church as modelling what God intends for the Peaceable Kingdom—a healthy, beautiful, thriving, protective—and protected—ecosystem that welcomes a stunning diversity of life that benefits the entire ocean of human and planetary life.

More ecotheological commentaries for upcoming lectionary readings can be found at

Monday, May 5, 2014

Ecotheological Commentary: Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A; Good Shepherd Sunday

Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year A
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

Good Shepherd Sunday, as this day is sometimes called, provides multiple points of entry for an ecotheological perspective. In John 10:1-10 Jesus refers to himself both as a “good shepherd” and also as the gate by which the sheep enter into safe pasture. 1 Peter 2:25 compares those who follow Christ to sheep who had gone astray but are now safely in the care of the shepherd Jesus, “the guardian of your souls.” Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my shepherd . . .” One only has to say those first five words, and almost everyone in church can join in reciting this most precious psalm.

We are no longer an agrarian nation. Most of us don’t know any sheep herders personally. But at the time when this psalm and the other passages were written, herding sheep was a common profession. Sheep are not the brightest animals on the farm. They have to be led where you want them to go. It is up to the shepherd to find suitable pasture for the sheep to graze. And the shepherd must find water for them. Not just any water—but still water, so that the sheep won’t be swept away by currents that are too fast for them. When we think of this image of water, as Christians, we can’t help but think of the baptismal waters when we hear these words. In the still waters of our mother’s wombs we were created. In the still waters of the font we were baptized Children of God. And this water sustains us all our lives.

For those of us with a Type A personality driven to hard work, we actually have to be led to places that replenish our spirit. Green meadows and still waters are ideal places to do just that. Only by reconnecting with nature can our souls be restored. God knows that, and leads us down those paths... 

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