Job 09 – Including Nature in Christianity

To admire nature is to admire and acknowledge God.

Then Job replied:

“Indeed, I know that this is true.
    But how can mere mortals prove their innocence before God?
Though they wished to dispute with him,
    they could not answer him one time out of a thousand.
His wisdom is profound, his power is vast.
    Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?
He moves mountains without their knowing it
    and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
    and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
    he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
10 He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.
11 When he passes me, I cannot see him;
    when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.
12 If he snatches away, who can stop him?
    Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
13 God does not restrain his anger;
    even the cohorts of Rahab cowered at his feet.

14 “How then can I dispute with him?
    How can I find words to argue with him?
15 Though I were innocent, I could not answer him;
    I could only plead with my Judge for mercy.
16 Even if I summoned him and he responded,
    I do not believe he would give me a hearing.
17 He would crush me with a storm
    and multiply my wounds for no reason.
18 He would not let me catch my breath
    but would overwhelm me with misery.
19 If it is a matter of strength, he is mighty!
    And if it is a matter of justice, who can challenge him?
20 Even if I were innocent, my mouth would condemn me;
    if I were blameless, it would pronounce me guilty.

21 “Although I am blameless,
    I have no concern for myself;
    I despise my own life.
22 It is all the same; that is why I say,
    ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’
23 When a scourge brings sudden death,
    he mocks the despair of the innocent.
24 When a land falls into the hands of the wicked,
    he blindfolds its judges.
    If it is not he, then who is it?

25 “My days are swifter than a runner;
    they fly away without a glimpse of joy.
26 They skim past like boats of papyrus,
    like eagles swooping down on their prey.
27 If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint,
    I will change my expression, and smile,’
28 I still dread all my sufferings,
    for I know you will not hold me innocent.
29 Since I am already found guilty,
    why should I struggle in vain?
30 Even if I washed myself with soap
    and my hands with cleansing powder,
31 you would plunge me into a slime pit
    so that even my clothes would detest me.

32 “He is not a mere mortal like me that I might answer him,
    that we might confront each other in court.
33 If only there were someone to mediate between us,
    someone to bring us together,
34 someone to remove God’s rod from me,
    so that his terror would frighten me no more.
35 Then I would speak up without fear of him,
    but as it now stands with me, I cannot.

I once had a pastor who said she thought it was a shame that early Christianity was formed at a time and place where popular thought was enamored with the idea of a separation of body and soul.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with Plato arguing that that soul is immortal (he is not the first to do so, but probably is the most influential), it leads to a disconnect from the physical world. To paraphrase: Stoics believed the highest human achievement was rational thought; Epicureans believed one could only achieve the highest mental state through focusing on rational (instead of physical) pleasures; and Skeptics doubted anything that could be perceived through the senses – basically the whole natural world.  All of these early philosophies were focused on taking man beyond body and the experiences of the physical.  Nature became a second-class citizen.

Then, with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, nature became something for man to dominate through conquering and rules.  This was the great age of exploration, where “new” worlds were discovered, colonized, and bent to the will of the ruling people.  As scientific thought became first less dangerous and then more popular, western society approached nature through rules and laws, and it became at best a system from which to take resources, at worst an adversary to be quelled.  Yes, nature was God’s creation, but one over which people (at least, the people in power) have total control to exploit and subvert at our own pleasure.

It makes some people uncomfortable to think about Christianity being prone to “influences,” but the truth is, it did not form in a bubble.  Jesus was a vocal critic of society in a time of great political tension. Yes, he came to save all mankind, but the problems of his day were searingly visceral as well as spiritual.  And the societal influences, as you can see from the previous two paragraphs, just continued from there, usually at the expense of nature’s influence on worship.  I will say that there has been a slow return towards a respect for nature as God’s creation.  Romanticism, in particular, held a mystic view of nature, and conservation efforts today help us recognize the finite beauty of the world, and our responsibility towards it.  But there are still those who are afraid of nature, afraid that by looking to nature we are introducing pagan practices to Christianity and polluting our Christian faith. Well, I have a news flash for anyone who believes that: Pagan practices have been a part of Christianity from the very beginning, so that ship has sailed.  Here’s a whole Wikipedia article, with a whole subset of links, that describe all the pagan practices currently in Christianity, if you don’t believe me.

The early authors of the Bible did not have a conflict of thought between God and Nature.  And it readily apparent in the Book of Job.  Clearly, God is the great creator of nature, and when we are in awe of nature, we are in awe of Xyr power.  To illustrate this point, I think a whole section of this chapter bears repeating:

He moves mountains without their knowing it
    and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
    and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
    he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
10 He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.

I don’t think we should go out and pray to the trees, or the moon, or the sun.  They are all creations – glorious ones, but still just creations – of our almighty God.  But, does a mindful walk through the forest count as a prayer?  If done with intention, I think so.  Same goes for marveling at the beauty of a sunset, the vastness of the ocean, the delicateness of a butterfly.  I think it similar to admiring a painting.  When we admire a painting we are admiring the artist’s skill.  What artist wouldn’t want their painting admired?  To admire nature is to admire and acknowledge God.

And then there’s the act of planting.  Planting, in particular, I find synonymous with prayer.  We plant a vegetable garden in the hopes of a bountiful harvest, or plant bulbs in the fall in the hopes for flowers in the spring. Even planting saplings in the hope of a timber harvest decades from now is a hopeful and even prayerful act: planting implies hope for the future, faith that God will carry us through to the next season.

Perhaps, if we all spend a little more time with nature – admiring it, respecting it, and caring for it – then we will be spending more time with God, too.

Genesis 18 – A Compassionate God

And the importance of being instruments of His compassion.

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”

Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.

“There, in the tent,” he said.

10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

13 Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

16 When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. 17 Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

20 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”

“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”

29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”

He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”

30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”

He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”

He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”

32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”

He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

33 When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.

First off, let’s just talk about how much flour three seahs is.  My NIV text notes tell me that’s 36 pounds!  Abraham made a ton of food.  Also, let’s talk about how long this must have taken.  If Sarah and her household have to prepare bread (which takes a few hours to knead and rise and bake), as well as slaughter and dress an animal (by hand) as well as cook it?  Hours.  So I’m thinking, if these guys came in the heat of the day, in other words mid-afternoon, they must have stayed until well into the evening.  Basically, Abraham had a dinner party with God, which is kind of cool.

But what I want to talk about a little more today is yet another example of God’s compassion.  I was always taught that the God of the Old Testament was an angry and punitive God.  For sure, there is a fair amount of punishment that goes on in the Old Testament, but even more than that there is compassion.  Again, the punishment that happens is more that of a parent correcting a child than a spiteful king condemning an unfortunate subject: He cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, but made sure they were clothed and continued to check in on them and their descendants; He set a mark on Cain so no one could further persecute him; instead of completely obliterating mankind through the flood He saved us through Noah and his family; instead of striking mankind down completely at the Babel he simply confused their plans and redirected them.  See what I mean?

Spoiler alert – Sodom and Gomorrah are about to be destroyed.  But Abraham doesn’t know this yet.  He is distressed that good people might pay the price of the wicked if God obliterates these cities.  Once again, my NIV footnotes put it beautifully: “Abraham’s questioning in vv. 23-32 did not arise from a spirit of haggling but of compassion for his relatives and of wanting to know God’s ways.  Perhaps Abraham stopped at ten because he had been counting while praying.”

And the amazing thing: God says yes to sparing the whole wicked land if there are just ten good people there.  What wonders a few good people can achieve without even realizing their impact!  Simply by existing, ten people would have saved two entire cities.

There may be some who counter this argument by saying “So where is God now in Syria? Or Yemen? Or Somalia? Aren’t there at least ten good people there?” And I unfortunately have nothing but the cold comfort of history to offer them.  Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed thousands of years ago: that story is finished and easy to be seen both historically and allegorically.  As to current or recently ended conflicts (and I’m including things like the Civil and Revolutionary Wars in recently ended conflicts), we are still in the middle of that unfolding story.  These stories are not finished:  We have people who can trace their lineage back to slaves in the 18th century (or earlier), veterans of World War II still living, refugees from Syria seeking asylum.  It is too raw, we are too invested, to gain any allegorical wisdom from these more current events. God’s plan is still unfolding.

That doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and just say about every bad thing “it must be God’s plan.”  We should fight where we see injustices, and be living examples of God’s compassion.  This country has a lot of healing still left to do from it’s history of slavery and it’s historical exploitation of Native Americans. We can’t bring back the literally millions of people killed, but we can make space for their descendants at the table.  We can also welcome the asylum seekers who call for help at our borders. We can advocate for alternative energy, which would lessen our reliance on oil and stop adding fuel to the fire of oil-related conflicts in the Middle East but also in our own country.

What I’m saying is, we’re still living these stories.  My ardent hope is that in several hundred years we, too, can be an allegorical as well as historical story.  I hope future historians can say “The USA’s first three centuries were marred by social inequalities of almost every kind.  But the country has been a leader in global peace for just as long.”  Or perhaps they’ll say, “Global unrest was driven by a reliance upon fossil fuels in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Through the dedicated work of scientists and social activists, fossil fuels haven’t been used in over 100 years.”

One thing we can learn is from this is that I’m clearly not cut out to be a news writer.  But if you can get past my hokey headline-writing skills, just remember that these are the outcomes we are fighting for.  We are the instruments of God’s compassion.  Abraham was an advocate for the righteous in a wicked world.  Let us be the same, today.

Genesis 01 – Not Talking about Climate Change

You don’t have to believe in climate change to be an environmental steward.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God calledthe vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place,and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.

20 And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” 23 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.

24 And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

It’s been a while since I read Genesis.  This really is a lovely passage, isn’t it?  I’m truly rediscovering the beauty of the Bible through this blog project, which is an unexpected bonus.  Look at all the beautiful, good things our loving God gave us to rule over – “the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”  (1:28) As regent-stewards made in God’s image, the entirety of the Earth are our subjects.

This means two things. First: we can expect service from them, which we do without thinking through service dogs, livestock animals, even relying upon pollinators for our fruiting plants.  Second: we are responsible for their well-being.  And that’s what I want to focus on today, out of all the beautiful possibilities of this chapter, I want to talk about stewardship, particularly environmental stewardship, since, as a farmer, it’s a part of my daily life.

This is not a discussion about climate change.  This is a discussion that transcends climate change.  If you don’t believe in climate change, or if you believe it’s happening but humans have nothing to do with it or can’t do anything to stop it, please don’t stop reading here – because you are exactly who I need to be on board with this.  I’m not even going to mention the term “climate change” for the rest of the post!

You see, God not only blessed us and urged us to “be fruitful and multiply,” (1:28) but he also blessed the animals that preceded us in the same way, in 1:22. As rulers of this Earth, it is our responsibility to help them do so – to help the beings of this planet live to their fullest expression.  Sometimes, we’re not very good at that.  Plastic waste in the oceans getting stuck on marine wildlife causes many to die. Oil spills destroy habitats. Concrete eats up more and more wild areas, forcing us into direct competition with many larger animals, like wolves and bears and coyotes.  Growing up, we never heard the coyotes in Virginia and rarely saw bears.  Now, since Charlottesville has seen explosive growth since I was a kid, you can hear coyotes almost nightly at my parent’s house. Also, my parents can’t put out the trash for pickup until and hour or two before, because bears will rip through it.

I’m not advocating for a full stop on all development and creature comforts.  That’s unrealistic.  But, regardless on your environmental beliefs, I think we all can agree that we haven’t been very good stewards of late.  And that needs to change.  So I urge you to find a few more simple ways to help the animals under our care, meaning, all the animals in the world.  This doesn’t mean the hippie environmental freaks are “winning” or that you’re succumbing to governmental or societal control of your personal choices.  It means that you are doing the Godly work of caring for the Earth given to you to rule.  We clean up our house when it’s messy, right?  Shouldn’t we clean up our kingdom, too? We know our houses aren’t permanent.  We hope they last a good long time, maybe even past our children’s lives, but how many residential dwellings are still in existence and in use from 500 years ago? Even 200 years ago? The Earth is going to last longer than that, even if it, too, isn’t permanent.  So it’s even more our responsibility to make it a good, green place while we have it, for as long as we have it.  Regular maintenance extends the life of  a car, a house, a person….why not the Earth, too?

Where to start, then?  I’ll be the first to admit, I could be doing more.  I still use plastic – juice is just a fact of life in our house, as are kids’ lunches with little plastic containers of applesauce, pudding, and whatever I can get Marienne to eat.  But I’m trying.  Let me share some examples from a busy, cash-strapped family that may inspire you: I make all our own bread now, and thus haven’t brought a one-and-done bread bag into the house (or trash) for months now. Also, I switched our toothbrushes from plastic to fully compostable bamboo. We use disposable diapers, but they’re 80% biodegradable.  We recycle what we can (it’s limited where we live) and compost as well.  And I call my representatives.  I called them last week to request a fast and wall-free solution to the government shut-down, and am getting in the habit of calling them regularly to voice my opinion.  That one is totally free, but may have the most impact as policies towards the environment are formed.

Finally, if you feel so moved, you can donate to lobbyists in line with your own environmental views.  I touched upon feelings some may have that Big Money and Big Government are strong-arming your decisions.  The influence is real, just not where you may think.  Did you know that fossil fuel and transportation lobbying groups outspent environmental lobbyists by a factor of 10:1 between 2000 and 2016?  That’s over ONE BILLION dollars spent buying your and your representatives’ opinion by those that would benefit most from environmental deregulation.  You can read about it yourself here. Just think about that objectively for a minute.  If you think popular opinion is being influenced by the tree-huggers at the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund (who only spent a combined two million on lobbying last year), how much more do you think popular opinion is being swayed by Exxon and BP?

Sorry, I’m going to mention climate change one more time, but just to say – forget about climate change. Let’s focus on being good stewards.  And part of that means holding ourselves and the companies responsible for oil spills, soil degradation and loss of wild space to higher standards than we are currently doing.  Solutions are out there – wind and solar energy, green-roof buildings, and low- or no-emission vehicles could all become just a regular part of life, if we support them.  You don’t have to believe in climate change to support them, you just have to believe that it is your responsibility, as a child of God, as a ruler of Earth, to take good care of all its inhabitants, from the fish in the sea to the birds in the sky.

***

This is a list of organizations that focus at least in part on lobbying for environmental conservation.  I like some better than others, but again, this is about choosing what speaks to your heart.  Additionally, you can find your representatives and their phone numbers here.  If you call them, mention I’d very much like my husband working again so can they please open the government back up.