Faith Communities as Stewards of Creation.

Delivered to the 101st Graybill Reunion

by David Heayn-Menendez – Executive Director of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light

A PA IPL board member, for whom I have unending respect, and I were talking about the uncertainty of what the future holds and what feels like the dire need to address the very real and measurable effects laid out in the recent IPCC report. I spoke of hope, as the both the core of my faith, and the resilience of the human capacity for hope no matter how insurmountable the obstacles. He responded that recent articles and conversations had led them to prioritize bravery over hope. Because it is bravery which allows us to face the realities of our world, to address them, and to move forward with the bold action required of us. 

This conversation struck such a strong chord with me. Recently I have been teaching my older son that bravery does not mean one acts without fear or is ignorant of the dangers that exist. Just as is the case with environmental justice, it is an act of bravery to commit oneself to action, knowing the costs. It is knowing that while we may not succeed at every turn the cause is just and the actions we take are worthwhile and will have an impact. 

With so much uncertainty in the headlines as of late, I continue to reflect upon this conversation. I believe there is a role to be played by hope and bravery. As people of faith and conscience we are driven by our moral convictions, we are sustained by hope, and we chose to act bravely in the face of crisis. Congregations and individuals looking to their faith traditions must take up the call to live actively as stewards of creation. All faiths teach us the basic idea that we must work together for ourselves, others, and the planet as a whole. Our faiths can guide us and our congregations and communities can unite together for this greater goal. 

President Theodore Roosevelt is remembered for many things but not least of which were his conservation efforts and the foundation of the national parks system. “Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence… there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants that it is for us.”

On this same topic he is also quoted as having said, “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation.”

As a person of faith, I believe there to be a direct connection to how people view God and how they treat all of Creation, and I continuously try to help others see and make those connections for themselves. The Christian and Jewish Scriptures begin with the creation of the world, this ordering of Chaos into water and earth, light and dark, human and non-human creatures, and it is this Creation as a collective whole, that God deems ‘very good.’

The early Genesis story, along with countless other passages throughout the scriptures of all faiths, reveals that God is in relationship with the Earth itself.  For example, we see God emerge in fire, in a windstorm, a burning bush, as light or at the top of a mountain.  In these instances, as in so many others, it’s as if the Earth is a form of God’s expression; like a piece of art, and we often look at art as a part of the artist who made it.  We understand a painting isn’t the actual artist, but is rather an extension of who they are.  An imprint of the artist is in the art they create, that is part of what makes it so beautiful and powerful.

What if it was the same with God?  What if we looked at not only humans, but also the Earth, as made in the image of God, as an extension of God’s-self?  How would we treat the Earth differently?

Would it change how often I drive my car?  How I use energy in my house?  Would it change how I interact with politics or how I raise my children?

Would it change how I act as a consumer?  Where I buy from?  How much I buy?  Everything we buy was at one time part of the natural Earth; part of the original artwork of God.  And though using the Earth for provision is necessary for our survival, when does production or consumption become empty of purpose, empty of thoughtfulness or meaning?

These are all important and very difficult questions.  And when faced with them we can respond in a variety of ways.

1. We can become defensive:

When faced with reality and all the ways poor environmental practices permeate our lives, we can automatically list off reasons why we can’t change our interaction with the Earth, including: “changing the way we do things is too hard,” “it would mess up the economy,” “it isn’t that serious and won’t affect us much here”

All of these claims are not only false, they also ignore the larger issues at hand.  The fact is that at this point real change is not a luxury, we must change if we want to ensure our survival.

But even if we don’t want to focus on the impact on the future, another problem remains; treating what is going on as a non-pressing issue means denying the reality, humanity, dignity and worth of the individuals and communities being affected right now.  The island communities forced to migrate due to the rise of sea levels, communities of color experiencing environmental racism, farmers enduring drought and crop loss, these people matter, and choosing not to see and respond to these changes undermines their worth.  We must do more than sit in our complacency or act out of defensiveness.

2. We become stuck:

When we do recognize the gravity of the situation, we can quickly become overwhelmed or fall into despair. Faced with the enormity of the problem, the high stakes and the difficult road ahead we may feel hopeless and wonder what’s the point of trying to fix this massive problem.

In these instances, we must support each other and keep moving forward, because giving up leads nowhere.  So, if you find yourself overwhelmed by the enormity the problems, its threat or the complex solutions needed to address it, take a moment to practice self-care and reframe. Give yourself a little slack, know you are not alone, find others who are also practicing Earth care, and then get back up and keep going.

3. We seek change:

When we know the problem and are committed to facing it, we can then seek education, resources and opportunities that help us move toward a greater future.  When we learn about how our daily lives and our systems contribute to the problem, without getting caught up in guilt, we can adapt.  We can make the necessary sacrifices for the betterment of the Earth, future generations and ultimately ourselves.  We can challenge our culture of convenience and consumerism and set higher standards for how we engage with the Earth as a society, nation and world.

This type of change, change of heart, mind, self, and society is the responsible choice, the moral response, and the option that recognizes God’s fingerprint on all of Creation and treats Creation as if it is God’s own art.  This is the choice we are called to make. We have to act and transform.

That’s what we see in Mark 9:2-9 , as the disciples are called to move and grow.  In Mark 9 Jesus calls Peter, James and John to follow him up the mountain, and as soon as they witness the miracle of the transfiguration, this glimpse into who Jesus really is, they want to stay and build a booth so they could stay.  Despite what they had seen, they still didn’t quite get it, they didn’t yet know who Jesus really was, nor did they understand that they and Jesus had to return from atop the mountain.  They couldn’t stay, they had to continue on, using what they learned to continue growing and moving forward.

In this passage we are reminded of the temptation and the danger in remaining stagnant and complacent and we catch a glimpse of the good news and yes, the difficult transformation we risk missing, when we stop seeking and using knowledge that is given to us.

This is something that many of us may find challenging, seeking knowledge even when it is inconvenient, because such knowledge would require deep change and transformation.  Acknowledging that the Earth and our own small slice of the garden of creation is changing would mean real change if we were to take our responsibility to God, the Earth and future generations seriously.

And history is riddled with stories of people and cultures who continued walking down roads of destruction refusing to recognize the red flags and be proactively transformed.  But faith, faith is built on transformation.

Transformation is how we understand the story. We believe in a God who made all of Creation so woman and man, plant and animal, lion and lamb may all experience life. Viewed in this way, we are not called to haphazardly use the Earth, we are called to care for it, to co-create, responsibly and constructively with God, who is the ultimate artist.

Pennsylvania is not only one of the highest energy producing states it is also one of the top polluters. Educating our children, congregations, and communities about steps they can take live actively as stewards of creation is just the start. This week the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative passed the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, which will hopefully allow us to join RGGI in 2022, providing funds for conservation, frontline communities, and investments in clean renewable energy. 

I am often struck by the reaction communities and individuals of faith and conscience have when I discuss these first two components of PA IPL’s work. One hand you have individuals who do not feel or live within a faith tradition who fear PA IPL’s faith centered mission. They are accustomed to or stereotype people of faith as science deniers and proselytizers. They also fear association with other moral or faith specific issues. At the same time people of faith shy away from over politicization. Part of me understands this, as someone involved in local politics I more than many others have delt with my fair share of politicization. Advocating for your community, its health and wellbeing, as well as its long-term survival can hardly be less partisan. No one would say that wanting to breath clean air is partisan, or wanting clean water for drinking, swimming, or fishing is overly partisan. 

As a historian I studied religious communities, saints, and monasteries. The ascetics of the ancient world are often badly confused in popular imagination. We think first of Anthony in the desert, removed, devoted to God, and at one with nature. We often forget about Francis of Assisi, Nicholas of Sion, and many others who made sacrifices and found their path to God in the world. Moreover, Anthony himself, while practicing asceticism and training his mind, body, and soul he too wrote for the world, to guide it. He was not entirely removed, and very few of those saints, holy men and women of the past, were ever truly every removed from society. The word ascetic comes from the Greek askesis, which really means training or exercise. The word politics comes from the Greek politikos, meaning of citizens. When we live as people of faith, we do not cease to be citizens. We do not give up our voice and our rights. If anything, our nation was founded on the maintenance of those parallel identities. To live our faith and moral convictions action must take place in the world. If communities and individuals of faith and conscience do not make themselves heard others will speak for us.

The easiest and third path to living actively as stewards of creation is what we at PA IPL call Creation Care. The projects entailed in creation care allows us to connect people to hands on opportunities to safely connect with each other and restore their environment. Through our tree planting efforts — and collaborations with the Keystone 10 Million Trees Project, and scores of local groups across PA — we have planted over 3,000 trees in the last four years and removed invasive species. This year alone, we have already planted more than 7,000 trees. These efforts have made measurable progress. By increasing the biodiversity of our environment, by cooling our rivers and streams, and slowing pollution and erosion we enhance our environment’s ability to sequester CO2 and we mitigate the flooding. 

In preparing to give my speech today, I was particularly struck by the reading from Isaiah.  Isaiah has always stood out for me because of the beauty of the images and poetry of the writing, all written at several very dark times for the Israelites — times of despair not unlike our present times. This passage in in Isaiah 40 stood out for me:

It is the Holy One who sits above the circle of the earth, The Holy One who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in:

In this description of The Holy One, Isaiah paints a picture of an omnipotent, creator God who somehow made the vast panoply of stars that fill the night skies. This Holy One is not only the omnipotent creator but also a loving and benevolent sustainer as the one who “spreads the heavens like a tent to live in.”  This Creator made the heaven into a protective home to sustain this earthly part of his creation, and the humans who needed a tent to survive the cold nights of the desert would have fully understood that metaphor.

My view of humans and creation, and the miracle that this planet sustains us, is shaped by my faith but also by my life as a teacher and a father. 

The balance of the garden of creation has been maintained for millions of years. We have benefited from this garden of Eden.  We have created cultures, civilizations, and we have come to know God, by many names in many faith traditions.  All those traditions were filled with gratitude for the created world and thought of humans as stewards.

In the modern world, progress has tipped those fragile balances of oxygen and carbon dioxide, of heat at day and cooling at night, and of reaping the fruits of our home without harming it. Within the last couple of centuries, we have “developed” in size and sophistication. We began with coal that would heat our homes and power our factories and our trains. We found oil that would power vehicles and engines. Until relatively recently, little did we realize that there were invisible consequences from all the carbon dioxide released in the burning of these fossil fuels. 

For two hundred years, we have been tipping the delicate balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide. Somehow, we have made “the tent to live in” into a sauna where the rules of what we can expect in daily weather have changed radically and dangerously.

Pope Francis, in the eloquent and prescient encyclical, Laudato Si’, makes the case that many have elevated “progress”, “the gross national product,” “the good life” above our relationship with God. He even calls out our blind trust in “technology” and our over-confidence that technology can fix this problem of global warming. He speaks up for the poor who are the first to feel climate change — living nearest to sources of carbon pollution, or huddled on the edge of rising oceans. Pope Francis mourns the rapid extinction of our fellow creatures— evident everywhere around us as humans use up all the resources and displace more and more species.

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”
Continue to be brave and boldly strive for a better world. There is not a greater mission than to leave the world better than you entered it. Educate, create, and tend to others and all of creation in this miraculous garden. I invite you all to join me, and PA IPL, as we work to care for the Earth.  I look forward to working with you all as we learn and grow together. May the peace and blessings of God be upon you.