Lent and New Implications for the Practice of Restraint

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to speak to a group on the topic of Lent and creation care. It’s an interesting subject. I appreciate connecting traditional practices with current problems. There’s something about the discovery of new ‘uses’ of old things that I find encouraging. Some people concerned for the future of nature advocate for creating entirely new belief systems. I’ve never been convinced that this is possible. To me it looks like consumerism in disguise.

Here are a few ideas I shared with the group:

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As Long as the Earth Endures: Looking for Providence in the Ecological Crisis

By most accounts, the term “eco-anxiety” entered the public conversation in 2017 by way of a report from the American Psychological Association. That report described eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”[1] In this essay I want to offer some reflections on what Christian teaching might have to say about such a fear. In the ecological crisis many Christians experience a theological collision between a belief in God’s ongoing provision for the earth, with us earthlings in the mix, and the catastrophic repercussions of a way of life wildly out of alignment with the biophysical limitations of that same earth. The significance of this collision comes from the fact that a fear of serious environmental disruption—whether or not it rises to the level of doom—is in line with the unfolding facts.

The theological conversation surrounding the ecological crisis is wide-ranging. For instance, many pastoral voices have encouraged us to recognize God as “Creator” in our prayers as a way of connecting faith and worship with environmental realities. Christian ethicists have asked us to evaluate our carbon footprint in light of God’s love for creation. Sallie McFague, if I may highlight just one voice, encourages Christians to see consumerism as a affront to a biblical portrait of God, especially the kenotic descriptions of God like the one in in Philippians 2. God’s self-emptying love, she argues, should lead us to practice the radical love of self-restraint.[2] Christian teachers have found that there is much to draw on and much to critique in both the Bible and the tradition.

Given the breadth of the conversation and the propellent anxiety, it is curious that more is not said about God’s providence. . . .

–These are the opening paragraphs of an essay I recently wrote for Vision: A Journal of Church and Theology. The full essay, which begins on page 6 of the issue, is available online. There’s lots of other good stuff in this issue, so take a look at the entire table of contents.

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Reading the Great Lakes

One of the most engaging books on ecology I’ve read recently is Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. One way to understand this book is to think about what happened when humans developed ways of getting large vessels beyond Niagara Falls. Egan writes, “About 170 feet high, the falls that tumble over the Niagara escarpment near present-day Buffalo, New York, are nowhere near the world’s tallest or even largest by volume. But they were among the most ecologically important because they created an impassable barrier for fish and other aquatic life trying to migrate upstream from Lake Ontario into the other four Great Lakes.”

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Like Trees Planted by Streams of Water – The Bible on Trees

Texts: Psalm 1 & Deut. 30:15-20

Happy (blessed) are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked
or take the path that sinners tread
    or sit in the seat of scoffers,
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees . . . .

I wonder if you’ve ever dug into the soil with your bare hands and attempted to trace a network of roots. It’s not so hard in tilled land, but if you were in the forest there would be so many roots that following just one or two would be difficult. Scientists who study these root networks often use water to wash away the soil to get a better look.

What I would like us to do today is role up our sleeves and push our fingers into the soil of scripture. We will try to follow a few strands from the root network that connects these 66 books. We will start in Psalm 1. The roots that I want us trace relate to what the bible has to say about trees.

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Eco-Anxiety and Divine Providence

Not long ago I was asked to contribute to an upcoming issue of Vision: A Journal of Church and Theology.* It was suggested that I write on uncertainty in light of the environmental crisis. I ended up writing on how we might think about God’s providence at a time when eco-anxiety is running high. The journal issue doesn’t come out until the spring, so I thought I’d post a few of my concluding paragraphs here.

* * *

One place we find God’s providential care at work is in the persistence of nature’s cycles. Though stressed, these patterns remain. There are seasons. There are migratory patterns. There is the host of biogeochemical cycles—water, nitrogen, and carbon, to name a few. We sometimes identify this aspect of God’s ongoing provision as creatio continua. In the face of our worries about environmental doom, we would do well to see these cyclical changes as an expression of God’s patient and wise rule. God’s providence is not anticipated as an emergency backup. It is found in the system itself, the arc of life. 

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A Sermon with Trees in View

Here’s a sermon I gave a few weeks ago in a retreat setting. I was asked to speak about how the Bible might help us appreciate nature. It was a very warm southern Ontario morning, but great to be with the group under some wonderful old maples.

* * *

My assignment is to talk to you about how the bible helps us appreciate nature. However, I must be honest and start by saying that I do not think we need the bible to appreciate nature. You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the beauty of the natural world. Many people report that they feel most calm and most satisfied when they are outdoors. People flock to beaches and trails on days like today.

As a kid, I was introduced to nature conservation, not through the bible but through local farmers and hunters who loved the land. These people got to know the flora and fauna; they cared about the well-being of plants and animals. You can’t watch a whitetail doe and her fawn walk into an alfalfa field on a misty morning and not think there is something special in our world worth caring for.

What I’ve discovered, though, is that people who believe the bible has authority over their life have even more reason to appreciate nature.

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Packing as Reflection – Scripture, Ecology, Vocational Change

If you’ve ever had to pack up the stuff in your office and move it out in boxes, you know it’s a weird feeling. Is the change a symbol of success . . . or failure . . . or just the start of a new season? I’ve done this kind of packing twice now. Both times it’s been an exercise in reflection and hope. Conversations I’ve had with people run through my mind. I reflect on what my work might have meant to others and what it’s meant to me. I sort through pictures and cards. I try to fit the greatest number of books in the fewest number of boxes. I’ve been a theology prof and a pastor. These are both book-heavy jobs, so packing up is a slow process. 

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A Sermon for May 1

I was grateful for the opportunity to join the good folks at St. Clement’s Church in Toronto yesterday. My sermon text is below. A recording of their worship service is available here. All the best to this congregation as they consider how creation care could be more fully expressed in their ministry.

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Texts: John 21:1-19; Psalm 104:24-30; Romans 8:18-25

Once someone mentions it, it is obvious: the Bible is an outdoor book. Someone has said that we spend 90% of our time inside—not true for the people of the Bible. Most of the action in the Bible occurs outside.

The thought that I want you to consider today, is not just that the Bible is an outdoor book, but that the Bible’s core message has deep ecological significance. Ecology, of course, is the study of connections—the connections that make up the web of life. Hear, once again these verses from John’s gospel, imagine the scene:

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. . . . Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus had appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.”

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