From Church “Property” to “Earth-Community”
Lutherans Restoring Creation at www.lutheransrestoringcreation.org.
I begin by honoring the folks in every parish who serve on the committee that cares for the (building and) grounds. Often it is a thankless job, with hard work that needs to be done on a regular or seasonal basis—mowing, raking, shoveling, sowing, weeding, harvesting, trimming, clearing, cleaning, among many other things. Many of these folks have specialized skills and use them wisely in their commitment to their congregational vocation and their exercise of good stewardship. They see their work on the grounds of the church as a sacred trust, and they take pride in their work.
Generally speaking, however, we are all caught up in a treatment of land that comes from the culture rather than from our theological traditions. We see our land as a commodity. We look at church property as “sites for development.” We consider its commercial value. We talk about “owning” the land, and we have “Property” Committees. We “maintain” the property based on various cultural values of attractiveness—which often lead us to treat the lawn with weed-killing toxins and to plant non-native trees and shrubbery based on appearance alone.
Now we need to “reorient” our views in order to see ourselves as stewards of land that is God’s good Earth. In the biblical creation stories, God made the land and called it good before creating humans. Creation was valued for its own sake, apart from human use of it. God created humans last to exercise responsibility for Earth, and God commissioned humans “to serve and to protect” creation. Our Lutheran theology affirms the goodness of the material world. We claim that the movement of God is toward becoming incarnate in, with, and under creation. We consider God to be present and creating in an ongoing way by “working for good in all things.” As such, God is earthbound, and the Earth is filled with God’s glory. We Lutherans have a sacramental theology affirming that the “finite can bear the infinite.” Our sacraments witness to the conviction that since Christ is present in such ordinary elements as grapes and grain and water, then we can be sure that Christ is present everywhere—in all places, in all things, and on all occasions. And our theology claims that the Holy Spirit is the giver and sustainer of life.
The consequence of these convictions is that we see our church land and all living things that share this space together as sacred. Land is not simply the measured square footage with 6 or 8 inches of topsoil. Land is not soil apart from the microbes, worms, grubs, beetles, that inhabit it, the trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses that are rooted in it, the insects, birds, small mammals, and rodents sustained by it—including the humans who depend on the soil and on all that lives out of the soil for sustenance, beauty, and breath itself. All of these comprise an Earth-community, and we are part of it.
Because all of it is sacred, we who share this space are enjoined to treat the land of our congregations with reverence and to care for it in such a way that all of life thrives there. Our reverence for the land is the right basis for our use of that land. We need to have knowledge of the plants and animals on the land and to understand our impact on their habitat. We need to be aware of the impact of our choices on other humans, not only interms of nature (such as the watershed) but also in terms of the vulnerable humans in our society and in the world. We need to understand the principles and actions of conservation and preservation. And we need to see our relationship with life around us as one of kinship and communion.
Furthermore, we are called to pray to God and give praise to God in accompaniment with the soil and the elm trees and the rhododendrons and the tulips and the grackles and the raccoons and the mice and the gnats that share this land with us. Just as the Bible calls all living things to worship by thriving in their space, so too are we commanded to worship together with them: “Let all creation praise the Lord” or “All creation! Praise the Lord!” Such a reorientation in our relationship to life around us will lead us to echo the words of Jacob when he wrestled with the angel: “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it.” Now we know!
We affirm the importance of place when we hear the question that God asks Adam and Eve in the garden: “Where are you?” Our answer to that question is this: Here we are—an integral and inextricable part of this garden Earth. Ecological thinking affirms such a reorientation toward the land. Everything is connected to and interrelated with everything else. We share a common heritage in the universe. We are all made up of stardust. We share similar DNA with other higher primates. We have an intimate communion of interrelationships with all things, whether we are aware of it or not. Beyond our commonalities, each church community holds a particular time and place in this larger system of things. We can see ourselves and the life immediately around us as a small piece of Earth-community in which we acknowledge ourselves as mammals and embrace our kinship with all other creatures. We can recognize our human dependence on the land for food and on the life of the land for oxygen that enables breath itself.
This perspective leaves us with a deep sense of place. The mandate is this: Know the region of which you are a part, learn its geological and natural history, and understand how your land relates to and inter-acts with the larger terrain around and how it is part in the local watershed. Know the ecosystem of your church land—its trees and bushed and flowers, as well as the insects, birds, and other small animals that share this sacred space with you. Draw on local experts to get an assessment of the land and soil and native species as a basis for making decisions that impact the land. Consider land use around the church in its urban, suburban or rural context. Be aware of the green spaces around you—or the lack of them! Assess your proximity to corporate or industrial processes that affect the land in your neighborhood and city.
This entire reorientation means that we are part of an Earth Community that shares our land together and that we know this land as the true sanctuary in which we gather and worship. We need to define ourselves in relation to all that is around us, indeed one among many life forms who inhabit this space. To emphasize this kinship, one congregation includes pictures of trees and birds and small mammals from their land as part of their church directory of “members.” Another church took pictures of their trees, enlarged them, and framed them as artwork for the church—so that people would notice their trees as creations of beauty. Churches can cultivate an awareness of, a kinship with, and a love for all things natural around them.
What practical actions might a congregation take to show reverence for the land and all its flora and fauna and to serve and protect it with humility, gratitude, and grace? Here are some ideas to consider.
1. Know your space: Learn all that you can about the land, its plants and animals, and its make-up and history.
2. Preserve and restore the natural state of the land. Identify the native plants, and protect and nourish them. Planting trees or shrubs or flowers or grass for appearance sake alone does not foster the life of the native eco-system. A Japanese flowering tree draws virtually no native life to its vicinity. By contrast, Douglas Tallamy of the University of Delaware estimates that a native oak tree will attract 252 native species of insects, birds, mammals, rodents, and other plants!
3. Serve and protect your lawn. There are many resources available to build an attractive lawn in Earth-friendly ways.
5. Best Practices.
6. Extend your commitment beyond church land
7. Land trust: Consider placing your property in a permanent land trust, whereby it will be preserved from development in perpetuity.
8. Public Witness:
9. Cultivate a relationship with nature. God made nature for God’s own delight. When we despoil nature, we diminish the capacity for nature to praise God by thriving. When we restore nature we magnify God’s pleasure.
10. Learn about nature. Martin Luther said there were two books of revelation, the Bible and nature. In the 16th century reformation, Luther put the Bible into the hands of the laity. Now it is time to put nature into the hands of all of us.
In sum, we need the conceptual framework to providing us with a theological basis for our care of the land. We also need some practical ideas to carry out the mandates that arise from such reflections. In all of this, the goal is to create an ethos of Earth-care embedded in the identity and mission of the whole congregation—such that members are able to say: “This is who we are. And this is what we do!”
Selected List of articles, books, and videos
See the article: “Means and Scenes of Grace” by Gilson Waldkoenig in Dialog: A Journal of Theology (Winter, 2011) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-6385.2011.00633.x/abstract. The issue is dedicated to eco-theology and includes articles by Norma Wirzba, Christopher Chapple and Whitney Bauman. A follow-up article to “Scenes and Means,” tentatively entitled “From Commodity to Community: Churches and the Land They Own,” will appear in the forthcoming Cross Currents Fall 2012, which will also be dedicated to eco-theology.
Norman Habel, David Rhoads, and Paul Santmire. The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary (Fortress, 2011)
Ben Stewart, A Watered Garden: Christian Worship and Earth’s Ecology (Augsburg Fortress, 2011)
Douglas Tallamy. Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants [latest edition} (Timber Press, 2007).
Anthony Westin, Back to Earth: The Environmental Movement in the Twenty-first Century (Temple University Press, 1994).
Jeff Wild and Peter Bakken. Church on Earth: Grounding Your Ministry in a Sense of Place (Fortress, 2009). See also their website www.yourplacematters.net, which also includes a Garden Curriculum for children.
Norman Wirzba. Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge University Press, 2011)
David Rhoads, ed. Earth and Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet (Continuum, 2007). Contains a number of sermons directly dealing with our relationship with the land.
“Dirt! The Movie.” Narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis, this movie explores the soil beneath our feet. Interviews with Wangari Maathai, Vandana Shiva, Wes Jackson, Alice Waters, Majora Carter, and others trace connections between dirt, food, community, spirituality, social justice, and environmental sustainability.
“The Journey of the Universe” An epic story of cosmic, earth and Human transformation. For information, go to www.journeyoftheuniverse.org.
“Earthbound: Created and Called to Care for Creation” (2009).Earthbound is a six-part video series on DVD that looks at Christians’ complex relationship with God’s creation. Many Lutheran voices and case studies of the greening of Lutheran Institutions. The series is available at half price from through Lutherans Restoring Creation.
“Urban Roots” (2011). Directed by Mark MacInnis, this film tells the uplifting story of dedicated and diverse citizens, allied with environmental and academic groups, who are reclaiming post-industrial Detroit by growing food and cultivating