Friday, March 31, 2017

Creation Care: A Vocational Interview

Recently, I was able to do a vocational interview with my church, Trailhead. Often, we reduce "vocation" to one's occupation. However, it is important to remember that vocation, for Christians, has a much more holistic aspect to it as we LIVE OUT what it means to be disciples of Jesus. To that end, the following is a manuscript of the interview I did on the topic of Creation Care. It covers one way my family and I find ourselves called to live out what it means to follow Jesus in a contemporary context.

What is Creation Care to you? What are some things you do?

Simply defined, to me and my family: Creation Care means aligning ourselves with part of God’s original intent for humanity, in the Garden of Eden, through caring for God’s good creation by practicing disciplines that reduce our carbon foot print, that take seriously the ethical treatment of creatures within creation, that reduce the use of artificial ingredients in our daily lives, that help us preserve natural ecosystems and processes both locally and globally, and that promote justice for humanity as well as balance in the global environment.

These lists aren’t exhaustive, but here are some examples of the easier things I do/have done/ am trying to implement in the practice of Creation Care (things anyone could easily implement into the fabric of their daily lives):
        Reusable bags
        Compact car w/ great mpg
        Hang dry our clothes
        Energy efficient light bulbs
        Lower temps in our house in the winter/ higher temps in the Summer
        Pay a little more for products that are better for the environment
        Eco-friendly diapers
        Wipes that were made in an zero-waste facility
        ethically sourced eggs and meat
        Natural hand soaps
        Buy in bulk (not necessarily Costco/ Sam’s bulk – bulk section. i.e. no packaging)
        Keep most of our gadgets/appliance plugged into a power strip in order that we can turn them off w/ a switch (helps prevent phantom power use)
        We practice the art of cooking!!!!!
        e.g. Homemade yogurt – I can ensure that my yogurt has only yogurt in it,
        E.g. Homemade bread has FAR LESS sodium, sugar, and artificial leveners/binders

Here are some of the …harder and kooky things I do/have done/ am trying to implement to promote Creation Care:
        Collect Gray water to flush toilets (i.e. water that has already been used like laundry water or the water that runs while one waits for the faucet to heat up)
        Hand Washing Clothes
        Home Made laundry soap (helps reduce packaging waste, controls which chemicals are being put into our water)
        Cloth diapers
        When I can, I bike places to cut down on emissions

How do you experience the brokenness of the world uniquely because of the disciplines you do?

I think, I can answer this in a several ways. First, Romans 8 tells us that creation is broken and waiting for redemption. So, simply by being aware that our environment needs protecting or that our actions can cause imbalance in creation is a testament unto itself that, because of the Fall, creation is “out of whack.”

Another way I experience brokenness through different practices of Creation Care is more inward. That is, doing these practices often forces me to realize my own brokenness. As a perpetual but also practical ritual, I truly understand the different things I do within Creation Care as disciplines.

Thus, when I save gray water, pack my groceries in reusable bags, make homemade laundry soap, break down recycling, tend my measly garden, or whatever, the Spirit will often gently remind me that I am doing it because I worship the Lord; it is an act of discipline and of worship. On the flip side, I will often find myself sunk in guilt, mired in sin, or having become apathetic toward my spiritual life. These are the times when, as I practice creation care, I find myself saying to (sometimes pleading with) the Lord, “I failed you in this area, Father! But, I am partnering with you through these disciplines of Creation Care!”

Lastly, I see brokenness in other people, sometimes, when I practice the things of Creation Care. I don’t mean this in a judgmental way, but I am often still surprised at how people can be affronted by my decision to be Creation conscious. Sometimes, I’ll have friends who can only view my actions through a political lens and thus will write off my ardent and serious acts of worship as leftist-hippy-nonsense. So, that’s one way I see brokenness in others.

A different way I see brokenness in others is when I notice that people have a hard time believing that I would choose something other than whatever is the most convenient action in a given situation. As a quick and easy example, even now (especially here in CO) that it has become more popular to use re-usable grocery bags, I can’t tell you how often I get stopped at stores or have to explain to clerks multiple times that I don’t want plastic bags. They will often get a puzzled expression and start looking for hidden cameras. Once, I even had a clerk refuse to put my items in anything but plastic bags, because she simply could not wrap her mind around the idea that I would do something that took a modicum of extra effort for the environment. A lot of people just have a hard time comprehending the fact that I would choose Creation over convenience.

How do you bear the image of God through Creation Care?

Right, at least to some degree, I think Creation care is part of what it means to align myself with the original intent of humanity and thereby participate in what it means to bear the image of God.

To clarify, one way I view the Bible is by what some call a “book ends” idea. That is, in the beginning of the Bible we see Adam in a Garden and at the end of the Bible we see Christ in a City; these images are actually related.

Now, in Genesis 1:28 Adam is told to SUBDUE the Earth and to DOMINATE a milieu of creatures. We could follow a ton of exegetical rabbit holes trying to understand what God is actually telling Adam he is meant to dominate in this verse. Regardless, this language of subdue/dominate is very strong, and I believe it has been exploited in the past to essentially mean that we can let matters of creation or environmentalism go to pot simply because it is ours do with what we will.

However, if one looks at the entire scope of the creation narrative, what she’ll find is that part of what is happening is that the narrative moves away from chaos toward order.  On the one hand, Genesis 1:2 says the Spirit was hovering over the deep (chaos), and on the other we get Adam ordering the Garden.  So, when Genesis 2:15 says that God put Adam in the Garden with the express purpose of working and tending it, one sees that the narrative is actually filling out, in my mind, what it means to subdue and to dominate. It has more to do with ordering and caring for creation rather than taking advantage of it.

I mean, a garden by definition is not nature gone wild nor creation gone amok! A garden requires someone to tend it. On the flip side, a garden can’t truly be a garden if it is neglected. It literally cannot be a garden without someone there to guide it. When one puts all of these elements together, the Bible promotes the idea that the original intent of humanity’s relationship to creation had more to do with STEWARDSHIP than abuse or exploitation.

So, that’s one book end. At the other end of the Bible, in Revelation 21-22, the reader is introduced to a city - New Jerusalem.  We often think of cities as festering, dank, cesspits of human existence. In many ways, cities are thought of as essentially the opposite of nature. But, that is not the picture described in Revelation. No, the New Jerusalem is more like a city that is in harmony with the created order. For instance, it is said that Christ sits where the Temple should be, and his face is the light. The walls of the city are made from precious gemstones, and each gate is made from a single pearl.

Read further and one sees that from the throne of Christ is a river that produces trees on its bank, which are called trees of life. This is actually a reference to Ezekiel 47, which also has a description of the eschatological (or end times) Temple. In Ezekiel, this same river protrudes from the Temple area and heads east toward the Dead Sea. On its way, it describes the same trees on the rivers’ bank, and it says that they produce fruit every month and their crops never fail. The river is literally a “river of life” that allows the trees to flourish. Eventually, the river dumps into the Dead Sea, which is called so because it is devoid of life from excessive mineral runoff. This Biblical life-giving river, however, freshens the water and makes it teem with life.

If one thinks of the images of Adam’s garden and Christ’s city as connected in the Biblical narrative, then the picture that Revelation paints is one that shows Christ perfecting what Adam was meant to before the Fall – ordering creation. Adam had a garden, but Christ will have a city. Adam was meant to order creation, and Christ’s Jerusalem shows that done to the nth degree.

This is significant when showing what Creation Care has to do with bearing the image of God, because at its core Creation Care illuminates part of humanity’s original purpose but also how history will ultimately bear this out through Jesus at his return. Thus, when I practice the disciplines of Creation Care, not only do I hold firmly to the history of (the very essence of) what it means to be human and thus an image bearer, but I also align myself with the trajectory of what the Bible says will be the outplay of image bearing – Christ in a city that is in harmony with creation.

How is this shaping you? 

Well, let me first point to a couple of resources that have helped shape my thinking on some of this. These resources aren’t exhaustive, and I could list a bunch more. However, for the sake of time, these couple books have had a real and lasting impact on me.

Sleeth M.D., J. Matthew. Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action. Vermont: Chelsea Green, 2007 - this book of any other is the one that really hit home for me. It is a bit dated, now. So, take that into consideration. However, I think Dr. Sleeth does an excellent job showcasing why the argument for Creation Care is important for Christian communities as well as showing practical examples of how to incorporate such disciplines into the fabric of one’s life.

Dawn, Marva. In the Beginning, God: Creation, Culture, and the Spiritual Life. Downers Grove: IVP, 2009. - This book is not specifically about Creation Care perse, but it does a great job going through some of the intricacies associated with the Biblical creation narrative, and there is a small section that helped shape my understanding on why stewardship might be at the heart of the “subdue/dominate” language.

Beyond this, I would say, as I have mentioned, the practice(s) of Creation Care are real disciplines for me as well as acts of worship. So, to that end, I am continually being shaped through the practice by increasingly and constantly being aware of the ways I am aligning myself with God. Perhaps, this is simply a characteristic of disciplines in general. In this, however, I would say, that it has given me a greater sense of what it means to worship through discipline, as a Christian.

What I mean is this: we often think about disciplines as these kinds of inconvenient and mostly uncomfortable things that we have to slog through to show that we are pious. I mean, we may not want to think about them like that, but in my experience, even the most ardent of Christians fall into the trap being pharisaic with disciplines; we let the practice of our disciplines become legalistic.

And, I am not saying I am perfect at this with Creation Care or any other discipline, but because there is a practical side to disciplines associated with Creation Care, I have found it is easier to think of them as opportunities more than obligations. For instance, I can’t always flush my toilet with gray water nor can I practically ride my bike to every destination that I have. But, the times I do use gray water or am able to bike instead of drive are OPPORTUNITIES to partner with God in preserving and promoting His good creation.

For another example, a few years back (and for a few years running) I had an EPIC home garden. Now, I did everything to care for this garden on my own, and it was a pretty intense amount of work. I built all the raised beds by hand, I grew ALL of our plants from seed, I was composting, I was doing pest control, and watering and fertilizing and etc., etc. I don’t say this to pat myself on the back, but to simply say that I really didn’t have to do any of that. There were days that I wondered why I would add so much work to my already (at the time) fairly robust schedule of grad school and caring for an infant. 

But, the truth is it was an opportunity. I chose to see this as a way of worshipping God in a mode that the Bible describes as part of the original way Eve and Adam were meant to be doing so. By worshiping God in this way, I was not just checking things off my spiritual to-do list, but I got to cultivate real and practical elements within my spiritual journey. Our Garden grew, our lives were enriched, we partook of the literal fruit of God’s good creation, and we had the opportunity to worship God through the entire process.

What might it look like for you to confirm the gospel in your work?

For me, the practice of Creation Care is a witness to the Gospel itself, to some degree.

What I mean is, sometimes “The Gospel” is reduced to the words we speak about the message of Jesus. However, if we are called to be disciples, then part of the message of the Gospel is to live out the change we experience as we grow closer to God, which is partly realizing and chasing after God’s original vocation for us. We have an intended purpose in caring for the Garden, and Christians can still spiritually worship God by bearing witness to the goodness of God’s original created design and by partnering with God in implementing a lifestyle that aligns ourselves with the ultimate hope that the greater Gardener, Christ, will fully redeem Creation when He returns.

So, the acts of Creation Care help me declare the Gospel through all of these ways, in one:
 1.) I remember that I am aligning myself with god’s original intention for humanity.
 2.) In the here and now, I bear witness to the goodness of creation. 
3.) I proclaim the hope I have that Christ will return to not only redeem humanity but the whole of creation itself.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Time is Short! - Thoughts on a Cosmic Nativity

I believe, it is decidedly unoriginal to say that something out of the book of Revelation is bizarre, but I’m going to anyway: the twelfth chapter of Revelation is really bizarre. Especially during Advent, people are often inundated with renderings and readings of the birth of Christ from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, but not often do we Christians flip our texts open to the back end of the New Testament to read the other nativity story. You know, it’s the one with a seven-headed dragon, a woman crowned with stars who is dressed in the sun, and an epic spiritual battle between archangels, angels, and demons!

There are many things that could (and have been said) about the meaning, plot, and theological nuances of the Revelation 12. Who is the celestial woman? Where and when did these events occur? Did they occur at all or are John’s words that he saw a “sign” mean they are to be taken metaphorically? To these and many other inquiries, I leave you to your own study. However, there is one thing presented in Revelation 12 that, to me, is not only the central message of the chapter but also encompasses within it a key aspect of the Advent season. That thing is idea of the in-between. 

Here is what I mean. In the last few years, when I ruminate on Revelation’s nativity scene, my mind often lands on a friend I had a few years back, whom I met working at a soup kitchen in Juarez. In homage to the season, I will refer to her as Mary. When I met Mary, she and her husband were expecting a child, and it was evident, with every encounter, that she was overjoyed to be having a baby. As we grew closer with Mary and her family, the group of friends we were a part of experienced many joys in anticipating the arrival of her newborn. There were baby gifts, a growing belly, complaints of achiness and morning sickness, occasionally one of our female friends would even probe Mary’s belly convinced the little tike was kicking her hand.

Soon, however, we started to notice that Mary was having some troubling interactions with some of the other workers at the soup kitchen, other ladies who had been working there for a while. At first, my friends and I just noticed some subtle things like when Mary would talk about her baby in front of certain people, there would be a huff or an eye roll or a head shake. It seemed a little rude, but I just assumed I was misunderstanding their reactions. Not long thereafter, we began to see instances where Mary, obviously distraught, would leave the soup kitchen early after speaking with some of these ladies. Eventually, one day, in the dusty concrete structure that served as our mess hall, we found Mary alone, crying, and angry. When we asked her why she was so upset, she would only tell us that one of the ladies had said something incredibly mean to her. My friends and I decided it was time to get to the bottom of this behavior.

So, the next time we were together working to prepare a lunch, we slyly tried to probe the woman who had supposedly said these things to Mary. She and some of the other workers said that they believed Mary was a liar who was manipulating people into buying her things. They recounted how Mary had claimed to be pregnant many times before and never had a baby! She would occasionally come to the soup kitchen with high hopes that she was with child, and for the first couple times, the ladies said they would celebrate and prepare with Mary. But, this pregnancy being the fourth or fifth iteration of her tale, the women had begun to believe her to be some grand grifter vying for the spoils of rich Americans who would come to serve in the soup kitchen.

None of this made much sense to me. Mary was not poor in the way others were so desperate in the neighborhood, and she never inquired about handouts or the like. Her husband had a steady job, they had a large comfortable home (at least in comparison to her friends and neighbors), and she was usually generous with both her time and money. In fact, in my memory, I was more often on the receiving end of her hospitality and generosity than the other way around. So, I was more than skeptical of what these women at the soup kitchen were telling me. I just didn’t see evidence that the pregnancy was faked. 

Nonetheless, when it came around the time for her to deliver, she simply disappeared. We could not get a hold of her. Maintaining hope, I convinced myself that she was simply recuperating from childbirth and tried to stave-off dread that something terrible had happened during the birth. After a few weeks, with a hung head, and a gaze that was devoid of eye contact, she came around to see us.

She admitted that she did not have a baby, was never actually pregnant, and that this was not the first time such a thing had happened (something she had never told us before). By her telling, every time she thought she was pregnant, she was really convinced that she was! Her body would go through the changes, she would feel that the baby was growing within her, and a sense of expectation would progress in her household. But each time, when birth pangs began, she would rush to the doctor only to arduously find out that her womb was empty. Then, her “symptoms” of pregnancy would slowly dissipate. I have often wondered how she could get so far along before she or any doctor realized that she was having a false pregnancy, but it is not uncommon for women in her area and economic standing to not have the best, or any, access to proper medical care. And although, as I mentioned, she and her husband were better off than many in the area, they would still be considered deeply impoverished by U.S. standards.

The truth is, I believed her. I still do. At the time, my heart ached for her. And now, raising my own children and having had the amazing opportunity to anticipate their coming, my heart actually breaks when I remember walking with her through this situation. I can’t imagine the pain she and her family must have felt when hopes for a child were dashed.

When I think of her now, in connection with Revelation 12, I cannot help but think that this situation poignantly illustrates what Revelation means to tell us and what a large part of Advent means to remind us – we are in the in-between! A large part of Revelation 12 is spent telling how Satan is repeatedly defeated until he is finally thrown to earth where he wages war against “those who keep God’s command and hold fast their testimony about Jesus Christ.” In Contrast, the chapter also tells us that the Christ child was snatched up to the throne of God, which is meant to show Jesus’ true reign in the post-resurrection/ ascension era. Revelation 12 also says that “now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of God” and that “[believers] triumphed over [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony! “ [it. added]. There is a real tension here that John highlights. On the one hand, we ought to expect the hardship that comes from an enemy who continually wages war against us, and yet on the other we have the hope and assurance that the victory is already won.

That is to say, there is tension because we live in-between two Advents. Christ has come, and He will come again; Christ inaugurated his Kingdom when He rose, and we will consummate it when He returns! In the meantime, 1 Peter 5:8-9 tells us, and I believe Revelation 12 confirms, that our enemy prowls around like a lion seeking to devour us! And, although we can rest assured in the power and salvation of the blood of the Lamb, we continually wait for Him to finish what He started. We wait for him to return. Advent is a season to remember what Christ has done and how the Presence of the Lord, in the form of Jesus, broke into our reality to offer redemption and salvation. But, maybe even more, Advent reminds us, as we anticipate Christmas Day, that we perpetually wait for Jesus to come again! 

Was my friend Mary’s ordeal a spiritual attack, a psychological ailment, or simply a by-product of a broken creation? I am not sure. Maybe, it was one or all of these things. What I do know, is that the “time is short.” I hope and pray that she sought and was able to find real healing in the wake of the tragic loss of her baby, even if her child only ever existed in her mind. I also prayerfully hope that she, like many of us in this season of hope, is able to cling to a different sense of expectation as she awaits the arrival of our Lord. In this, I am confident there will come a time when our damn-ed creation will breathe anew, when Mary’s pain will be replaced with joy and everlasting love, when the tears of loss she shed will be forgotten for He will have wiped them away, because then there will be no more mourning or crying or pain.