The “E” word: Environmentalism. Every time I heard the word, I was convinced it was merely a political cause for a group of tree-hugging, Birkenstock-wearing, New-Agers who live in Oregon (no offense to you Oregonians) and had nothing better to do with their time. I remember rolling my eyes the day the science department sponsored a lecture by Tony Campolo on campus … on Earth Day, no less. (I was convinced that Earth Day was invented either by those Oregonians for political reasons or by a stealthy higher-up from Hallmark looking for another way to boost card sales on unnecessary holidays). But Campolo blew me away and nailed me right to my seat: It is our calling, he said, to be great environmentalists and conservationists. I sat still in my seat, but my mind did a 180. Before you roll your eyes, keep reading.
Since that lecture, I have come to understand that environmentalism isn’t as much a political issue as it is a spiritual one. The underlying principle of environmentalism is stewardship, a word we hear often in the context of a sermon, but rarely—if ever—in the context of conservation. Stewardship, by definition, is the act of managing all the resources that God has entrusted to us in order to bring Him ultimate glory. I was convicted that “all” includes the earth. Until Campolo said it, I had only thought of stewardship within the context of money, time and talents; but not in the context of the earth.
There are Christian environmentalists in the world who are overworked and under-recognized (and there are too few of them). They live with the conviction that conservation is important because they believe we are entrusted to be good stewards with the resources that come from an incredibly creative God who loves beauty.
Yet it’s a bit ironic that the secular environmentalists are the ones leading the charge to conserve God’s creative masterpieces on earth, not Christians. Our response to conservation has been minimal. Instead of cornering the market, in a sense, we have turned our heads, rolled our eyes or run for the exits. We have somehow fallen prey to the lie that it’s merely a political concern, not a spiritual concept. As Campolo said, we all should be Christian environmentalists. In fact, Christians should be the greatest environmentalists, motivated by a deep desire to preserve the earth’s creative masterpieces, the reminders of our Creator God. In it’s boiled down form, the difference between secular and Christian environmentalism is between adoring nature and adoring the Creator of nature.
Do we live in an era where conservation is needed? The proof is in the pudding: Irreplaceable rainforests are being destroyed at break-neck speed with the motive of making money; fields are being transformed into parking lots every few minutes somewhere in the world. In the 20th century, we’ve used 10 times as much energy as we used in the previous 1,000 years combined. And the average American in the 1990’s used 50 to 100 times more energy than the average Bangladeshi. Something must be done.
God, from the beginning of the world, created the earth and “saw that it was good.” God chose to birth the beginning of humanity, not in a parking lot, but in a garden. Interestingly, there are references to creation’s current condition from the prophet Micah who wrote, “the earth will become desolate because of its inhabitants as a result of their deeds.” Yet for the most part, the church’s response thus far has been apathy or ignorance, or we’ve become too lazy or busy to do anything at all.
Walt Whitman believed even the smallest of insects was sacred. Blake stated that everything that breathes is holy. St. Francis of Assisi was the father of Christian environmentalism. He cared for the birds almost as passionately as he cared for people because he understood that everything comes from the Creator of the universe. Sadly, there are far too few Whitmans, Blakes and St. Francises of our time.
Conservation is our duty, but duty can seem, at times, to be a burden, a weighty responsibility of “have to’s.” In addition to stewardship, our desire to be better conservationists should arise from awe. When we live in awe, our hearts are captivated as we experience God’s earth in a personal, reviving and refreshing way. Think of the last time you got chills from looking at a range of snow-peaked mountains in the winter. The last time the hair on the back of your neck stood straight up as you saw the neon rays of a slowly fading sunset over the Pacific Ocean. The last time you wrinkled up with goose bumps observing the blazing colors of autumn leaves danced off the trees and fell to the ground. These are the times we whisper, “Thank you, God.” We find God and see glimpses of our Creator in the corners of His world … and He is glorified because of it.
Shouldn’t these experiences, embedded within the context of the truth of the presence of a creative God, motivate us to preserve these experiences for others? I have yet to find anyone awe-struck as they look over lush, rolling hills littered with McDonald’s hamburger wrappers and old beer bottles. Chris Friesen so poignantly asked: “What will it mean tomorrow when the sun rises over the urban wasteland I call home? What does any of this mean on the hardtop, when I’m left standing among the skid marks of modernity with a Wal-Mart bag in one hand and a jug of used motor oil in the other?”
How do we take seriously the call to be responsible stewards of creation? This answer is different for every person, but collectively, we have a responsibility. Let’s be aware and let our brains expand as we think more critically and more Christianly. Sure, “this world is not our home,” and our citizenship is in heaven, but we’re not given the right to trash and dispose of this earth because of it. If God made creation a priority, shouldn’t we? If he created beauty, shouldn’t we desire to preserve it that so others may experience what we have experienced? Let’s begin to see conservation not as a form of political ideals, but as a form of spiritual stewardship and as an act of worship.
Now I can proudly wear my Birkenstocks hugging trees in Oregon and knowing that I have the potential to bring glory to God through worship by being a good steward of His earth.
Thanks for the lesson, Tony.
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