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The Theology of Ecology

I have just returned from my annual, "Dear God, I can't take this anymore; please release me; let me go; I'm leaving on a jet plane, don't know when I'll be back again" break, otherwise known as a vacation. During that time from the mountains to the beach, I got reacquainted with this beautiful place called planet earth. The clean air, pristine lakes, beautiful beaches and trees from pines to palms reminded me of how good God has been to give us such a wonderful home.

It goes without saying that environmental issues have become a hot topic literally and figuratively. It doesn't matter where you go or who you listen to, it seems like everyone these days is talking about the environment, whether they are professors or professionals, actors or athletes, bureaucrats or business people.

The topic is certainly relevant right here in our country; although we represent roughly 5 percent of the world's population, we generate 40 percent of its waste. The average American family produces 40 pounds of garbage every week. Every day, we dispose of approximately 200 million tons of garbage and less than a quarter of it is recycled. Only 7,000 of the 20,000 landfills that have been operating since 1978 are now in operation. Of those 7,000, more than 90 percent of those do not meet EPA regulations. Even such a thing as one leaky faucet can waste up to 50 gallons of fresh water a day, which is astounding considering the fact that only 3 percent of the world's water is fresh water. I could go on, but you get the picture.

The reason I am speaking about this issue is because of one basic belief I have that should motivate every follower of Christ in the church to lead the way in being in the forefront of creation care. My basic bedrock belief is: This is a God-created world. That is why, for me, The Theology of Ecology begins with the very first verse in Scripture: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1).

That verse clues me in that care for the creation must be somewhere on the list of any disciplines of a Christian lifestyle. In fact, I believe there are two words that are operative for any Christ follower in how we relate to this world and those two words are responsibility and accountability. I am to act responsibly toward the creation and its creatures. I am accountable for how I do so before the God who created both.

With that being said, it is extremely difficult for me to navigate between the two extremes I often find on this issue, from the Al Gore types, who idolize this planet to the know-mores on the other side, who ignore this planet.

A true story reminds me of just how careful we have to be in examining the so-called scientific facts. A junior high school student won a science fair in Idaho one time by giving a report about the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide. He simply was attempting to show how conditioned we have become to alarmists who practice junk-science and try to spread unnecessary fear of everything concerning the environment. As a point of his project, he was urging people to sign a petition demanding strict control or total elimination of this dangerous chemical dihydrogen monoxide.

Dihydrogen Monoxide is colorless, odorless, tasteless and kills uncounted thousands of people every year. Most of these deaths are caused by accidental inhalation of DHMO; but there are other dangers, as well. Prolonged exposure to its solid form causes severe tissue damage. Beyond that, Dihydrogen Monoxide:
• Is a major component of acid rain,
• Contributes to the green-house effect,
• Can cause severe burns,
• Contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape,
• May cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile breaks and
• Has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients.

Presenting these facts, he asked 50 people if they supported a ban of this chemical, which is legal in the United States. Forty-three of the 50 said, "Yes." Six were undecided, and only one knew the chemical he was talking about was water.

On the other hand, the extreme that says we don't have any type of problem at all reminds me of a story I read concerning Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson. They went on a camping trip, and as they lay down for the night, Holmes looked at Watson and said, "Watson, look up into the sky and tell me what you see." Watson said, "I see millions and millions of stars." Holmes replied, "And what does that tell you Dr. Watson?"

Watson replied, "Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Theologically, it tells me that God is great, and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it tells me that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does this tell you?" Sherlock Holmes replied, "It tells me that somebody stole our tent."

The good news is we don't have to come down on either side. We don't have to be a part of either extreme in order to develop a Theology of Ecology. I want to disabuse you of the notion that environmental issues and ecology are contemporary issues. The environment is not a contemporary issue. God started talking about the environment from the beginning of time. No sooner had He pasted the sun in the sky and hung the stars in space and gave man breath, but He gave to the first man—and therefore to all people—the theology of ecology.

"This is My Father's World" is more than a song title—it is a sacred truth. More than 30 years ago the phrase "Think Globally, Act Locally" was coined to bolster the argument that all of us must address global environmental problems. I would like to change the slogan from "Think Globally, Act Locally" to "Think Biblically, Act Righteously." I will wrap my remarks around two basic points that constitute the basis for our theology of ecology, understanding that this is our Father's World.

1. Creation care involves the celebration of creation.
Go back to that very first verse of Holy Scripture that gives us the majestic truth about all that we see and know: "In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth" (Genesis 1:1).

That verse tells us who is in charge and how all of this got here. Before God began to create, not only was there nothing on earth or nothing in the heavens, but there was no earth or heaven. When God spoke, He literally created something out of nothing. This fundamental, biblical truth is a foundational belief. Here's why:

If we are going to approach environmentalism not just logically and practically, but also Biblically, we have to ask this basic question: "To whom does the earth belong?" Not only is the answer given in Genesis 1:1, but it is bolstered by other verses throughout Scripture. Psalms 24:1 says, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it."

When you put Psalms 1:1 with Psalms 24:1, you understand God is not only the Creator of this world, but because of that He is also its owner.

There is a flip-side to this truth. Psalms 115:16 says, "The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He has given to man."
When we approach the Theology of Ecology, we have to be balanced. The balanced biblical answer to the question we just raised is that the earth belongs to God and humanity. It belongs to God because He made it; but it also belongs to us, because He has given it to us.

However, the next concept is very important to understand. God did not transfer ownership of creation to us—He transferred stewardship of creation to us. God is the Lord over the Earth. In the most literal sense He is the landlord. That is why we remember the words "responsibility" and "accountability."

At the same time, God made it very plain from the very beginning that He created this world for human beings to enjoy. He built into the very fabric of creation a motivation for celebration. Genesis 2:9 says, "And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food."

Listen to that phrase: "pleasing to the eye and good for food." God intentionally created this world for the enjoyment of His children in the same way Walt Disney created Disney World for the enjoyment of the family.

God built aesthetic beauty into the world in which we live so our eyes could enjoy the sun setting between two mountains, so our ears could enjoy the rush of a mountain stream, so our noses could enjoy the smell of fresh flowers in the forest.

He even constructed an atmospheric bubble around it so we physically would be able to engage in the celebration of creation. We ought to be thankful for the atmosphere of this Earth which God meticulously made as a thin blanket of gases designed to keep us just warm enough to stay alive without burning up and just cool enough to be comfortable without freezing to death.

Literally like a greenhouse, certain gases trap the sun's energy and maintain a climate that sustains human life. With these greenhouses gases, the average temperature on Earth is 60° Fahrenheit. If it was any colder, life as we know it would be impossible.
God did that so we could enjoy the planet.

That is why—whether I look through a telescope and examine that stars or through a microscope at the complexity of a human cell—when I see the details of God's creation, I need to celebrate and express my love to God through the care of this tremendous handiwork that I enjoy every day. I love the way Francis Collins puts it:

"When you look from the perspective of a scientist at the universe, it looks as if it knew we were coming. There are 15 constants: The gravitational constant, carious constants about the strong and weak nuclear force, etc., that have precise values. If any one of those constants was off by even one part in a million—or in some cases, by one part in a million-million—the universes could not have come to the point where we see it. Matter would not have been able to coalesce. There would have been no galaxy, stars, planets or people."

As a footnote, that is also why we should celebrate humans as the crowning point of God's creatures. The same Scripture that tells us God created this world also tells us the crowning point of creation was the human race for whom the Son of God died. That is why, from the biblical perspective, to be pro-creation by default also means to be pro-life.

Can you imagine someone who would say they would like to honor the great painter and artist Rembrandt, simultaneously despising and disfiguring his paintings? Likewise, it is inconceivable for anyone who says they want to honor the Creator, yet not take seriously the desire to honor His creation.

Therefore, it should not surprise us that as soon as God created the universe and all that was in it, "last but not least" He created the first man and woman to inhabit it and immediately gave them their first job: "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it" (Genesis 2:15).

The first job God ever gave the human race was creation care. That ought to put to rest what the world's oldest profession really is. Is it landscaping! Creation care is a concept that comes right out of God's Word. We are to take care of this creation. Therefore, the Theology of Ecology involves this second point.

2. Creation care invites the preservation of creation.
Ecology is the study of the relationships between organisms. Although we are only one of many organisms on this earth, God made it plain that we were to have dominance over all of the other organisms.

Yet we must admit that never before have we had the technology to exercise so much power and so much dominion over creation as we do today. Think about it. Forests can be cleared in day. Rivers can be tamed and guided by dams and levees. Crops can be planted today on land that was once considered unsuitable. Never before has our responsibility and our accountability to care for creation been so high and vital.

There are two words that are very important in understanding the whole concept of dominion. Those words are subdue and rule. Genesis 1:28 tells us, "God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the Earth and subdue it. Rule over all the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground' (Genesis 1:28).

The Hebrew word for subdue literally mean to "tread down" or "bring into bondage." It connotes the image of a conqueror, and a strong implication is that humanity is to have jurisdiction over our environment. The Hebrew word for rule literally means to "prevail over." It is also a picture of being victorious over something that needs to be controlled.

On the other hand, as we have already seen, Genesis 2:15tells us, "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it."

The Hebrew word for care means to "keep clean" or "preserve." In other words, dominion is not domination. We don't have a license to rape the resources. It is one thing to use this planet. It is another thing to abuse this planet. We have been given a sacred responsibility to keep and to care for this world God has given us.

In fact, God takes this issue so seriously that He even gave specific commands to the nation of Israel to exercise good stewardship of the environment. Throughout Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God commands Israel to care for the land, to treat domesticated animals properly, to respect wildlife, to conserve trees and to bury their waste; and it was all the practical application of his
Theology of Ecology.

There is a little known verse in the Book of Ezekiel that raises questions about the impact of degradation from one part of the environment to another part: "Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?" (Ezekiel 34:18). Remember all of this goes back to the concepts of ownership versus stewardship.

Has it ever occurred to you why even Canaan, "the Promised Land," did not ever completely belong to Israel? It was the Promised Land because God had promised to give it to Abraham's descendants, and He did that. The Scripture makes it plain that individuals owned land only as representatives of their tribe. No one was allowed to transfer land outside the tribe, or sell it to anyone in perpetuity. In fact, every 50th year—in the year of Jubilee—all of the land was to revert to the person who originally owned it. Why did God do this? In part, to teach that the land was still His and that no human being had the right to use as he or she pleased.
The question always arises, "OK, we get it. He is the owner, and we are the stewards. It is His creation, not ours. We are responsible and accountable to care for it. So what do we do?"

Just as an Elementary Creation Care 101 start, let me give you a simple formula that I saw somewhere called "CPR." There are three things that all of us can do to show we are for creation. First of all, we can do all that we can to Clean creation as much as possible without substituting the creation for the Creator and acting in a responsible way that is best for the most people possible. We ought to do our part in keeping our air, water, land and natural resources as clean as possible. It can be as simple as not throwing garbage in a stream or as literal as deciding to give up smoking.

We also can Pick Up. I am continuously amazed, even around the grounds of this church, how people walk by garbage and trash and not even bother to pick it up. It sounds simple, but just drive up and down your neighborhood streets and highways and see for yourselves.

Then we can do something that my son finally got me started on several years ago—we  can Recycle. We don't have to pollute this world with our garbage. We can find better and more constructive use even for trash itself.

Let me close this story and one last truth. One of the angriest times I've ever had in my life was when I walked into a home years ago, when my first son was just a baby, to find that somebody had broken into my home and robbed my family. My house was trashed. My clothes were thrown everywhere, and some very valuable personal items that belonged to me were stolen. I literally felt raped and violated.

How much more does God feel the same way when we rape, rob, pillage and trash the world  He gave us to tend and to care for? You cannot glorify the Creator at the same time you heap contempt on the creation. As followers of Christ, we believe Jesus Christ is not only Lord of the church, but He is Lord of creation. If that is true, then what happens anywhere in this creation and to the creation must be of interest—spiritually and biblically—to those of us who are His followers.

One last thought: If we are to care for a world that is temporary, how much more should we care for our souls that are eternal? God created this world for us to live in; He created us to live with Him. Jesus Christ died for the world—not the physical world but the people world. He was raised from the dead, not to live in this physical world, but to live in us. When you take care of God's most valuable creation—your soul—that is the greatest creation care of all! 

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