Eagle Scouts building a nature trail on our church property by Daniels Run.
The observance of Earth Day on April 22 began in 1970 as part of an emerging environmental movement and has grown steadily since that time. At first environmentalism seemed like a fringe cause. People in the farming community where I grew up thought that people opposed to pesticides like DDT and the pollution of our streams were a little unhinged.
There has been lots of environmental progress since then. On the national level it includes the landmark Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Last November representatives of 195 nations meeting in Paris reached an historic accord that, for the first time, committed nearly every country to lowering planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change.
On Earth Day last week, those nations gathered at the United Nations in New York and signed this far-reaching accord. It promises to make a significant difference by gradually weaning us from the use of greenhouse producing fossil fuels along with other measures. Yet it may be too little too late. The past three months have been the warmest on record by a huge margin. Still, these steps give me hope.
Anyone who has studied the environment has seen those dismal graphs charting the historical trajectory of things like unsustainable population growth, the depletion of natural resources, the extinction of whole species of animals, and environmental degradation, including global warming. These line graphs show a gradual, almost indiscernible, negative trend throughout the centuries, and then begin to accelerate during the industrial revolution.
Around 1950, the year I was born, they veer sharply upward and have continued to accelerate since then. For example, the human population was about 2.6 billion in 1950 and it’s about 7 billion today. A related statistic is that the world’s car population has grown five times as fast as the human population over the last 50 years. We can’t continue like this. We face the specter of a complete environmental collapse unless we make radical changes. Wendell Berry expresses the distress we feel:
It is the destruction of the world
in our own lives that drives us
half insane, and more than half.
To destroy that which we were given
in trust: how will we bear it?
It is our own bodies that we give
to be broken, our bodies
existing before and after us
in clod and cloud, worm and tree,
that we, driving or driven, despise
in our greed to live, our haste
to die. To have lost, wantonly,
the ancient forests, the vast grasslands
in our madness, the presence
in our very bodies of our grief.
This sounds frighteningly apocalyptic. We need to honestly face such grim possibilities, but becoming doomsayers announcing that “the end of the world” is hardly going to be much help. Instead, we will want to consider how we as a people of faith can be part of the solution and not just part of the problem. A proper appreciation for God’s providential care, as reflected in the ecological balance of nature, can help us chart a different path.
An ecological reading of Jesus’ teaching to not become preoccupied with the necessities of life and to instead consider God’s care for the “birds of the air” and the “lilies of the field” (Matthew 6: 26-30) draws our attention to the relationship between our lives and all other living things. In our determination to provide ourselves with so much in excess of our basic needs, we have allowed our economics and technology to get out of touch with the needs of the environment.
In response, faith communities will want to practice commemorating Earth Day each year in their worship services. We will also want to consider our place in creation from a faith perspective. And we will want to put our faith into action in our faith communities and in our personal lives.
My own Mennonite faith tradition has a rich heritage of living “more with less,” mutual aid, and sustainable farming, which we will want to draw on. Other faith traditions have yet other resources to draw from. Let’s try to buy locally as much as possible and take the time to shop for produce at farmers’ markets even if we have to pay a little more. It’s a good way to learn to know our neighbors along with reducing our environmental footprint.
Along with this we will want to pray with our feet by speaking out and joining others in public action as appropriate. Finally, we want to celebrate God and God’s good creation. As in Psalm 148 we join the whole creation in praising our creator God.
Spring turns my attention to gardening. The cool weather crops of lettuce, kale, carrots, peas, broccoli, cabbage and chard that I planted several weeks ago are thriving—they even seemed to enjoy the recent cold snap. I’ve been browsing gardening magazines for my bedtime reading. Cynthia Woods wrote in the Virginia Gardener about an ancient oak tree that came crashing down in her garden on Christmas eve.
Cynthia says that after she recovered from the shock and horror of smashed Camellia and azaleas, an enormous hole in the ground, and more muck and mire than she cares to describe, she began to ponder what to do about the situation. She had worked on the garden for over 20 years and had recently rather smugly decided that she had it where she wanted it.
She says she should have known better. “A garden is never, ever finished. Any experienced gardener knows that even entertaining such heretical thoughts is just plain foolish.” She began to look at the desolation each day and walked around it to try to see and hear what the new, radically altered landscape was telling her.
Plants that thrived in the shade of an oak tree will not be happy in the bright sunlight that emerges when it falls to the ground. After she finished sulking, Cynthia began to contemplate the possibilities for the new, open space in her garden, perhaps an interesting Japanese maple and some low growing conifers that she could train to grow over large rocks.
Even under the best of circumstances, things are never finished. Cynthia concludes, “It’s best to accept the lessons of patience, watchfulness, and resilience that our gardens offer. Slow gardening—it’s the way to go. Breathe deeply, observe closely, and enjoy everything, even the imperfections. There is beauty in everything.”
The same wisdom applies to faith communities. Together we’re God’s garden. Our church is located in a particular spiritual micro-climate here by Daniels Run in the City of Fairfax. This environment supports what will grow in our garden. I’m not sure what the equivalent of an ancient oak tree toppling over might be but the wisdom we can gain from this is that even disasters open up new possibilities—that is if we have eyes to see and ears to hear what our new landscape is telling us.
Like Cynthia walking around in her garden, I spent considerable time getting familiar with this new space when I first became the pastor of our church. I occasionally walk downtown for lunch to absorb the ambience of our city. I have joined the local Clergy and Leadership Council to get a better feel for what other faith communities are doing and to explore ways of working together. I find ways to build relationships with church members.
I love puttering around in our church garden. My gardener and pastoral avocations flow together as I dream of ways to keep developing who we are and what we have. Our Fairfax community is part of the old South. This was a slaveholding community and a Civil War site. How does our presence, and the life of our peace oriented church fit into God’s purposes for our community?
The apostle Paul says we’re co-workers linked together as one. (1 Corinthians 3: 9) The Greek word he uses is synergoi from which we get the word synergy—diverse people working together to achieve a common purpose. Skilled garden landscapers strive to weave a common thread through a garden that ties things together but it’s the contrasts of shape, texture, and color that make it interesting. Monocultures are boring; furthermore, they’re more perceptible to pests and disease. So we mix it up. Inviting, resilient, and thriving churches have the same characteristics.
Gorgeous spring weather has arrived and I’m squeezing as much time as possible from my other pastoral duties to work in our church garden by Daniels Run. I expanded our garden a bit by creating two new beds. I planted early spring crops of spinach, lettuce, chard, radishes, and snow peas. All these plants are starting to poke their heads out of the soil but you have to look close to see them. In a few more weeks they will develop into vigorous plants.
This is the promise of gardening. It’s also the promising of pastoring our smaller church here in Fairfax, Virginia. Our adult Sunday school class has been studying the book The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches written by David Ray. He says that worship is where the life of a smaller church begins and comes together. He also reminds us that the church exists by mission. To paraphrase the prophet Jeremiah, “We seek the welfare of the city where we live, for in its welfare we will find our welfare (29:7).
Our church is fortunate to own a three-acre property in the middle of our city, with the small stream called Daniels Run flowing through it. One of the ways we seek the welfare of our city is by caring for this environment and developing it into an inviting space for our neighborhood. Last summer an Eagle Scout troop helped us create a picnic area and nature trail winding its way from our church garden down to Daniels Run. Now we’re gradually developing the trail through the two-acre woods on the other side of the stream.
We’re also renovating our church building and worship space to make it handicap accessible and more inviting. One feature will be a large window in our sanctuary looking out over the woods and our church garden. Another aspect of healthy church life is raising morale and elevating our spirit. A big part of that is focusing on the unique strengths and resources of our small congregation rather than thinking we need to be a large, program oriented church to be successful.
We are a church in the Anabaptist spiritual tradition that emphasizes the communal life of our church and things like simple living, service, peace, and justice. We’re also deeply rooted in the soil of our past history of farm life and bi-vocational farmer preachers. Perhaps that’s why I thoroughly enjoy combining gardening with my other pastoral work. In keeping with this spirituality, our church is considering changing our name to “Daniels Run Peace Church.” That will help to root us in our environment and to grow our garden here beside Daniels Run.
An Eagle Scout troop recently built a picnic area by our church garden that overlooks Daniels Run. Then they created a trail through the woods going down along the stream. They worked hard all day to clear invasive plants and brush, build steps out of dead logs, and haul out trash that had been dumped along the stream bank years ago. Finally, they laid down landscape cloth and covered it with mulch to create the picnic area and the walking trail.
People from our church prepared a lunch and helped with the project. The City of Fairfax donated the mulch and hauled away the brush and trash. We all willingly contributed to the project because of our public spirit and our love for our community. We want our city to be walkable and to have plenty of green space that enhances our environment. In the process we learned to know each other and built stronger community relations.
This is part of an ongoing project. During work breaks we discussed the possibility of creating a rain garden to capture rainwater from the street and our church parking lot. We want to extend the nature trail across the stream to connect with an existing trail in our two-acre woods on the other side of the stream. An even bigger dream is to someday create affordable housing (perhaps for people with disabilities) in the area where our church building now stands.
This is related to the song of our heart as a congregation. One stanza of our song is to “embody a faith-based, compassion and social concern that includes the poor, those on the margins of society, and our threatened natural environment.” This vision is still unfolding but it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s integrally tied to our location by Daniels Run, that little stream flowing through our church property, which eventually finds its way to the Chesapeake Bay and finally the wide Atlantic Ocean beyond.
There’s spiritual wisdom in our natural environment that we can learn from in our fast-paced Metro DC area. I think of a verse in Wendell Berry’s poem, The Want of Peace:
I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire.
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.
My hope is that our garden, picnic area, and nature trail by Daniels Run can help us reconnect with the spiritual wisdom found in nature. Another verse in one of Wendell Berry’s poems indicates how our nature trail by Daniels Run can help us find that peace and grace:
I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
Around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.
Our church’s community garden can serve as an allegory for the life and growth of our congregation. Margie, a member of our church with a playful sense of humor, began to call it our “Veggie Village.” Her vision was to have all kinds of flowers, native plants, and vegetables live together in harmony as is fitting in a church garden. She wanted it to be a space for children to enjoy and to learn about nature.
Plants grow from their own biological nature. We don’t create them. Our part is preparing the soil, planting the seed, providing water and fertilizer, pulling weeds, and waiting with hope. I like the way farmer-poet Wendell Berry expresses it:
The seed is in the ground.
Now may we rest in hope
While darkness does its work.
Still gardening is a craft and even an art. Gardeners learn to know each other and share all kinds of gardening lore. As a gardener, I read books, take classes, and experiment with different gardening methods. I learn as much as I can about each variety of crop, the best planting time, beneficial insects, how much water and fertilizer it needs, pests that attack it, and how to best interplant it with other vegetables and flowers.
The same is true for churches. We need the mindset of a gardener. A key to a healthy church is finding our niche and to do what we do well. Foremost, is identifying the type of soil where our church is growing and adapting to it. We dare not become complacent. We will want to keep experimenting with different ways of being church and engaging our community while trusting in who we are as a people of faith. We recognize that God is at work in us.
Jesus’ parables of the sower scattering seed and of the mustard seed draw attention to both the mysterious growth of the seed and to the astonishing fertility of the earth (Mark 4: 26-34). The reign of God is not something that develops naturally in human history through our effort. Instead, it’s the miraculous work of God and the harvest comes as a delightful gift. It is much bigger than our congregation, our denomination, or even our religion, and includes all the inside-out things God is doing in our world. Recognizing this can be liberating—we’re not slogging it out by ourselves. We will seek to discern what God is doing in our neighborhoods, roll up our sleeves, and join in the action.
There’s also a radical political edge to it. The reign of God is the opposite of the Roman Empire which rules by economic exploitation and military coercion. It’s a different kind of community formed through the power of love and nonviolent action. It’s a community that embraces all, especially the most vulnerable among us.
Jesus’ parables counsel patience and hope. Biblical scholar Ched Myers writes, “Mark sobers any illusion that change will be quick and triumphal. It is rather a matter of finding the right soil and trusting that the seed will grow, maintaining faith that the small seed will be “raised up” and the mighty brought down” (Binding the Strong Man, 181).
So much has changed in the 45 years since Earth Day was first recognized in 1970. The pressure on the environment and the growing desperation of poor people has increased dramatically. It’s experienced is as a combination of civil wars and mass-migration in Africa and the Middle East. Environmental distress is a significant cause of the rapidly increasing number of refugees worldwide and it’s estimated that there will be between 50 million and 1 billion climate change refugees in the coming decades.
The Fairfax County Clergy and Leadership Council recently did a human needs assessment. The five top needs we identified in our county are: (1) food security, (2) affordable housing, (3) mental health services, (4) transportation, and (5) youth. First generation immigrants are at greatest risk. We can see connections between the recent immigration into our community and environmental stresses around the world.
According to the UN Environmental Program, “Our [global] economy has increased in size by 22-fold since 1900, our use of construction minerals has increased 34-fold, ores 27-fold, and fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) have seen a 12-fold increase. We use 3.6 times as much biomass—crops, residues, and wood—as we did back then.” We’re rapidly approaching the carrying capacity of the earth’s ecosystem.
A common human response is denial. Pat Mulroy, the recently retired general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority says, “Ben Franklin was right. You learn the value of water when the well runs dry, and human behavior has replicated that time after time after time” (www.brookings.edu/blogs/planetpolicy). The American West is experiencing an extended drought that appears to be linked to climate change. Major reservoirs are drained to about one-fourth of their capacity and California recently enacted drastic water use measures.
Thinking more broadly, the well is also running dry on our use of all the rest of our natural resources. Our penchant to meet a crisis with denial is often exacerbated by an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. The immediate challenge is finding the energy to get involved in ways that can make a difference. Psalm 23 is a powerful and much loved scripture passage on trust in God, even in the most difficult situations.
Isaac Villegas, the pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship writes, “The psalmist knows this world. There is no promise of life here without enemies or evil. Instead, in the valley, surrounded by enemies, the psalmist sees a table—a place of fellowship and communion, for being with God and one another. Around the table—that’s where God happens” (The Christian Century, April 15, 2015). In God’s presence we see a path opening before us.
We’re much more apt to get involved if it’s an adventure with built-in times of fun and celebration. Doing things only out of a sense of duty and obligation quickly drains our batteries. Our church’s book club is discussing Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. It’s about their family’s adventure of eating only locally grown food for a year—much of it grown by themselves. It’s hard work, but with lots of fun and celebration. Communities of faith will want to take the same approach as we respond to climate change.
I have been enjoying laying out and planting the community garden at our church but on Sunday afternoon I participated in a different kind of garden planting event at the Institute for Islamic and Turkish Studies up the street from our church. It was an interfaith forum on countering religious extremism. The resource people on the panel that spoke to us represented the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths. We’re three different religions with similar roots. As Rabbi Gerald Serotta reminded us, we all trace our faith back to Hagar and Sarah. We sometimes refer to ourselves as the Abrahamic religions but it’s good to remind ourselves that women bear children.
All the panelists emphasized our shared humanity. We all recognize that we’re created in God’s image. Drawing from the creation story, Imam Talib Shareef emphasized that God created women and men, and saw that it was very good. He talked about how a child bonds with its parents. He reminded us that this bond can be broken through neglect or abuse, setting in place a destructive chain reaction.
Gail Hambleton, Vice President of the Global Peace Foundation–USA, drew on her peacebuilding work in Africa as well as with the Interfaith Alliance to Abolish Human Trafficking. She emphasized the need to recognize our shared humanity in order to deconstruct the national, ethnic, racial, religious, and social walls that keep us from working together for the common good.
Rabbi Serotta talked about the need to confront the violence in all our scriptures. This is especially problematic when such scriptures are taken out of context to legitimate our actions against people we consider to be our enemies. For Jews and Christians, this includes texts that command the complete destruction of idol worshippers, including small children. The Koran also has texts that can be understood in this way and we see people like the Islamic State group acting out on them in barbaric ways. The problem arises when we take such texts out of context and read them literally. We all have ways of interpreting these kinds of texts in ways that reject such ugly conclusions.
Imam Shareef said that Muslims need to also consider the life and example of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, other early Muslim leaders, and our own reason. Other parts of the Koran remind us that Allah (God) values human diversity. God could have made us all one but chose not to. Rabbi Serotta said that the long history of Jewish Midrash or interpretation forbids us from taking violent biblical texts literally. And finally, Christians need to interpret violent texts though the nonviolent life and teaching of Jesus, the itinerate Jewish rabbi from Galilee.
There’s a valuable lesson in this for all of us. We need to be humble and listen carefully to each other as we struggle with such problems in our religious traditions. And that brings me back to the community garden we’re creating at our church. One church member with a delightful sense of humor began referring to our garden as “Veggie Village”—a place where many different vegetables and flowers flourish together in harmony. As can be seen from the photo above, it’s still a work in progress but holds lots of promise. May our equally diverse human community also find ways to flourish together through mutual respect and understanding.
What does a church that embraces “smaller as better” look like? How do we “right size” a small congregation to enhance its strengths? In my last blog I identified the crux of the problem as programs and structures taken from larger churches that don’t fit small and medium sized congregations. Consequently, we end up spending too much time and energy filling positions on committees that hardly serve our needs. Many also struggle to maintain outdated facilities that further exacerbate our problems.
Paring down or eliminating church programs and structures developed in the past century, which no longer serve us well, is part of the solution. Another is to retrofit our building and church property to serve other community functions. These are practical nuts and bolts considerations.
Even more important is capturing a vision for “smaller as better.” Carol Howard Merritt identifies “a trend away from the bigger is better mentality and toward smaller, deeper community.” She gives the example of the movement away from patronizing big-box stores to supporting farmer’s markets. Several things lie behind this trend that can be instructive for churches.
Our congregation’s book club, which meets monthly at the local library, is reading and discussing Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s a serious, yet light-hearted account of her family’s year-long adventure of producing their own food or buying it locally from farmers markets. The bottom line is their love for good, nutritious food. Close behind is the desire to support local farmers and the local economy. Another motivation is to reduce our carbon footprint by not eating out-of-season foods shipped long distances.
I see a similar space for small congregations. In his tour-de-force book The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin juxtaposes the global movement toward greater empathy with the built-in entropy of our unsustainable reliance on energy from burning fossil fuels. The future of our human civilization is at stake.
Small congregations deeply rooted in their local community, and with an environmental consciousness, can help lead the way to a different future. For that to happen, slickly programmed, performance-centered worship services will need to give way to smaller, more relational forms of community. Furthermore, communities of faith have an innate sense of our shared humanity and our ties with all creation through our faith in God as creator of the universe. For our congregation in the City of Fairfax, this provides the inspiration for the development of a community garden and for a nature trail through the woods behind our church.
Spring has arrived and our thoughts naturally turn to our gardens. A group at our church is planning and beginning some preliminary work to develop a community garden. We have visions of intensive, small beds for vegetables, surrounded with herbs and flowers. One of our church members, an avid amateur naturalist interested in native species, told me she had been baptized with a sprinkling can. What a beautiful baptism image. We’re seeds being planted, seeds that contain so much potential life and fruitfulness.
This has been a busy week and I enjoy imagining the different events I participated in as instances of seeds being planted. One of those events was a meeting between the Fairfax County School Board and Fairfax County Clergy and Leadership Council of which I’m a member. Our meeting was hosted by the Annandale High School, which treated us to a delicious lunch prepared and served by students taking a culinary class.
It was a great learning experience. The sheer diversity in the school is astounding. The principal informed us that 79 different countries are represented in their student body. That became especially obvious when he took some of us on a tour and we dropped in on various classes. These teenagers are learning to relate to each other across many different ethnicities and cultures.
Part of the discussion in our meeting was about managing the religious diversity among the students. Muslim and Jewish religious leaders were especially concerned about the challenges that students from their faiths have in relation to religious observances. This segued into a discussion of the enormous pressure to succeed among students. Some fear missing classes for religious holidays because they don’t want to fall behind in their studies.
School administrators talked frankly about the intense pressure to succeed. Part of the pressure comes from parents but also from enrollment policies in colleges and universities. As I toured the school I began to suspect that teachers can also contribute to unrealistic expectations because of the pressure to succeed that’s placed on them. One tragic result has been the recent student suicides in Fairfax County.
In my last blog I related “being” peace with “building” peace. It includes a faith that leads us from anxious self-seeking to generous sharing. This cuts against the grain in today’s world. For Christians, this is the season of Lent leading to Easter when we remember Christ’s death and resurrection. John’s Gospel uses the image of a seed falling into the ground and dying. (12:24). We know the seed doesn’t actually die. Instead a biological trigger is switched on and it’s transformed by all that latent energy stored inside it. It’s an acorn producing a gigantic oak tree that, in turn, produces from 70 thousand to 150 thousand acorns in a good year.
The same is true for us. What may seem like death is actually an explosion of new life within us. The Bible talks about peace as shalom or flourishing communities rather than as a static state of no obvious conflict. Being peace necessarily includes a faith that leads us from anxious self-seeking to generous sharing. In Jesus’ words, “I lose my life in order to find it.”