God’s Steadfast Love

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I love the cadence of the first verse of Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.” It speaks of inexplicable joy. Gardening gives me deep satisfaction. It makes me so happy when I harvest crisp cucumbers or admire a table covered with my heirloom tomatoes, Brandywines, Lemon Boys, Cherokees, and a bowl full of mouth popping delicious Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes.

Still, that doesn’t quite measure up.  The psalmist is speaking of an even deeper joy, such as the relationship between good friends sharing a special moment. Or I think of the joy felt at the birth of a child and while holding a newborn in your arms. And I think of our two-year-old grandson Oscar who was so thrilled to see us when we came to visit this summer. He’s so secure in his world. Playing with him was so much fun.

Such love goes beyond measuring up to my own or other people’s expectations. Striving to live up to expectations is a trap because we always fall short. We love ourselves and we love each other because God first loved us. We live the love. This is what strong churches do almost instinctively. It’s who we are.

According to the psalmist, our hearts overflow with reciprocal love and thanksgiving as we remember all that God has done. God forgives my sin (those places where I willfully choose that which is destructive and hurtful). God heals me; God redeems my live from the terrors of death; and God crowns me with steadfast love and mercy.

The Hebrew word hesed is translated as “steadfast love.” It’s the kind of tough love that endures all the challenges of a sustained relationship. A relationship is tested and built as we go through hard times together. The same is true for churches. We increasingly find our stride as we go through the ups and downs of life together and learn to rest secure in God’s steadfast love.

Living Love, Growing Justice, Welcoming Everyone

Our congregation has recently been working together to come up with a motto that expresses the song of our hearts that we’ll include with our new name “Daniels Run Peace Church.” Several things became apparent.  We want to be a welcoming fellowship epitomized by our love; we seek to be a diverse church that’s growing in equality and justice.  And all of this begins in the shared life of our fellowship as followers of Jesus but we seek to extend such winsome love and justice to our neighbors and our world in ways that are healing and empowering.

Love and justice walk hand in hand. Together, they’re what peace looks like. The prophet Isaiah envisioned Israel (God’s people) as a choice vineyard lovingly nurtured by our Creator. God had expected Israel to be a loving community where justice prevailed but instead saw bloodshed and heard a cry (Isaiah 5: 1-7). We imagine violent, cutthroat elites oppressing poor people and fighting among themselves to gain power. I’ve been around the block enough times, however, to realize that these were most likely pious people who had convinced themselves they were doing the right thing.

We’re all involved in social structures that oppress and ignore the neediest. Sure, poor people often contribute to their own problems but when we learn to know them we discover that there’s always a backstory.  Poor kids get caught in violent neighborhoods, racial prejudice, an abusive foster-care system, poor schools, and a skewed criminal justice system. I imagine God looking at our country and saying, “I expected justice but saw bloodshed and heard a cry.”

Jesus chided his listeners and called them hypocrites because they were blind to such things. He told them that they were good at interpreting signs for the weather but incapable of reading the signs of the times (Luke 12: 54-56). How do we interpret the signs of the times in our world? They are those places overcome by spiritual brokenness and social injustice. We will also want to discern where and how the reign of God is penetrating our world, bringing healing, and social and spiritual transformation.

What does that look like? I was recently talking with a friend who is the pastor of another emerging church here in Fairfax. We share the goal of forming diverse, multi-cultural congregations. We also share the free-church conviction that dynamic expressions of God’s kingdom always emerge on the margins. Giving up our compulsion to be in charge is very liberating. It gives us the freedom to be different in ways that matter.

That’s what makes experimenting with different mottos for our church so much fun. I especially like the sentence one of our church members came up with, “A loving, multicultural congregation with a passion for peace and justice, following the path of Jesus Christ.” We eventually agreed on a shortened version that we will put on church sign by the road. Under our new name “Daniels Run Peace Church” will be the motto “Living Love, Growing Justice, Welcoming Everyone.”

 

Building an Inclusive Church

The raw fear can be overwhelming. Last week we saw images of a big truck ramming through the crowds in Nice as people ran for their lives. There have been so many mass shootings in our own country creating a fear of others. Then there are all those video clips of black men being killed by policemen and now of police being targeted by lone shooters.

Matthew Boulton, the president of Christian Theological Seminary, expresses our angst, “As the sound of gunfire continues to echo in our neighborhoods — from Baton Rouge to St. Paul, Dallas to Charleston, Newtown to Orlando — so many of us are angry, exhausted, heartbroken, devastated, lost. Violence like this strikes at the heart of who we are, and threatens again and again to divide us, segregate us, polarize us, turn us against our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors, ourselves.”

We need to confess that our country was born in violence as we destroyed native American populations, enslaved Africans to work our fields, and fought a revolutionary war against Great Britain. Later there was racial and religious violence against Jews, Catholics, and Asian immigrants. Still, we have been inspired and energized by greater ideals that are enshrined in our constitution: equality under the law, justice for all, religious freedom, a free press, and the right of assembly.

We have always lived with the tension between these two realities. Racism and the oppression of minorities are the original sins of our country. At the same time, many of our ancestors migrated here because they were fleeing persecution and poverty in the lands they came from. They brought with them the hope of religious freedom, justice, and equal opportunity for all.

Recent events have brought our racial and economic divides to the surface. They emerged at a recent Fairfax County Board of Supervisors meeting as they deliberated about creating an outside civilian review panel for police abuse investigations. Some activists attended to meeting to bring attention to the recent report showing that more than 40 percent of use-of-force cases in Fairfax County last year involved African Americans, who account for about 8 percent of Fairfax’s population.

A related incident people have been protesting is the death of Natasha, a mentally ill black woman who died in detention. She was in shackles and handcuffs and was still Tasered four times with a stun gun while surrounded by six deputies. An internal investigation concluded that they had followed protocol and no charges were filed.

We dare not focus our blame exclusively on the police. Many serve with integrity and devote their lives to keeping our community safe. I commend progressive policing initiatives here in Fairfax such as instituting restorative justice processes and a Diversion First program where mentally ill people who create a disturbance are taken to a medical facility rather than to the county jail. Prejudice permeates our society and none are immune. Too often our churches participate in this racism. It has often been noted that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America.

That’s why I’m so thankful for the diversity we have in our small church. We’re learning how to worship and serve together across our differences including ethnic and racial divides. My dream is that we will slowly, laboriously keep building an inclusive church one brick at a time here in the City of Fairfax. It can be hard work. It’s much easier to tear down than to build up. But we have a good start and my prayer is that by God’s grace we will grow more and more into the kind of faith fellowship that crosses the divides in our community.

Following Jesus in a Pluralistic World

We live in an increasingly shrinking and pluralistic world. The world in all its colors is coming to us and there’s now a Buddhist temple and a Muslim mosque right next door. Our congregation is gradually building relationships with both. We have recently joined our Muslim neighbors in an Iftar dinner breaking their fast during the month of Ramadan.

How do we follow Jesus in our pluralistic world? We begin with integrity. I honestly confess that, for me, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life—the revelation and embodiment of God and God’s way (John 14: 6). The life and message of Jesus, as it is contained in Scripture and lived out in the lives of those who follow him, is indeed good news to people who are looking for life and hope.

Such good news, however, can’t be prepackaged and distributed like Coke or four spiritual laws. That quickly becomes a huge turn-off. This good news needs to be continually unpacked in relation to the world we live in and to our own journey of faith. Saying that Jesus is the “way” becomes triumphalistic when we take it to the next level and claim that all other people are outside of God’s grace.

So how do we understand Jesus’ statement, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to [God] except through me?” One approach is to counter this seemingly exclusive claim with a counter passage like Romans 2:14 where Paul argues that the Gentiles are justified by their own experience of God and their adherence to God’s law written on their hearts.  It’s a good reminder to not build our theology on one scripture passage.

We will also want to consider the question Jesus was responding to. It wasn’t, “Lord, will the Muslims and Buddhists also be saved?” Instead, it was a heartfelt response to an existential question. He had just announced his impending death—that he was going ahead to prepare the way. Thomas responded, “But Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “Can’t you see? I am the way!”

Another consideration is how John’s Gospel presents Jesus. In the prologue or beginning of the Gospel, John talks about Jesus as the Logos or Word that was with God from the beginning. Jesus is the creative power and love through which God creates, sustains, and recreates the whole world. This Logos is present and active in ways that we have only begun to imagine.

Religious scholars often distinguish between three different ways of understanding our Christian faith in relation to other religions. The first emphasizes Jesus’ uniqueness. This is depicted as an “exclusive” position. Jesus alone is the way. Those who do not confess Jesus as their Lord and Savior cannot know God.

A Hindu friend once accusingly told me that both Muslims and Christians are exclusivists who claim we are the only true religion. He said we’re always trying to proselytize and convert others. This raises the profound difference between honestly sharing our faith and trying to convert people or thinking we’re the one true faith.

The second is an “inclusive” position which builds on the Christology of John’s Gospel. It holds that the same Logos or Word which we know and experience in Christ is also present in other religions. In this respect, Catholic theologian Karl Rahner raised the possibility that devout adherents of other religions may be “anonymous Christians.” Some Muslims has a similar understanding of devout people from other religions as being “submitted to God” or Muslim.

The third is a “pluralist position which emphasizes the distinctiveness of each religion. It doesn’t want to combine them or flatten them out as somehow basically the same. Each religion has its own unique merits and is, in its own way, an expression of God’s love and grace. Each religion, including Christianity, however, also contains elements that are less than good and even evil.

These three positions are often seen as distinct but Bill Cenkner, my religion professor at Catholic University, taught me to see them as overlapping models. There are parts of each model that we find to be true but all are inadequate by themselves. As a Christian I confess that Jesus is the way. Through Jesus I understand God and God’s way in the world. This is good news that I freely share with others. In this sense, Jesus is unique. But that does not mean that I think people who do not believe in Jesus are going to hell.

This is where the inclusivist position helps me. God’s Spirit is greater than any one historical religious expression of faith. If we confess that God is the creator of everything we should expect God’s Spirit to be present and active in all cultures and their religious traditions. Many devout people from other religions have a winsome faith and moral integrity that can put Christians to shame. We might understand such faith as an expression of the same Logos or Word of God that we have come to know in Christ.

Still, I get uncomfortable when we speculate that people from other religions may be anonymous Christians. This is not because I want to insist on the exclusive claims of my Christian faith but rather because I want to respect and understand people from other religions for who they are. In that sense I’m a pluralist.

When we do that we can have mutually respectful relationships and honest conversations with all kinds of people in our pluralistic world—including those who profess no faith. We will often be profoundly impressed by their moral integrity and their deep faith. We will want to be open to the possibility that God’s Spirit can also speak to us through them.

I have found that when we approach others with such respect they are also open to hear about our faith and about what it means to follow Jesus in all of life. We don’t always get it right but we discover that, through such relationships, we grow in maturity as God’s people and that our faith in Jesus is deepened.

Love Your Enemies

These are anxious times. There are many legitimate reasons to be concerned about the future of our families and our communities yet these concerns hardly warrant the degree of anxiety we feel. Something else is going on. One aspect of our anxiety is that we Americans are so politically and religiously divided. Polls show that many of us think we’re headed in the wrong direction and long for political change.

Our anxieties are constantly fed by the media. Major TV networks play on our emotions and this gets us hooked into watching their programs. News people pour on the drama as they report the latest election results, some outrageous, attention grabbing thing a politician said, or a horrible event like the recent mass shooting in Orlando. As they’re talking the split TV screen recycles the disturbing images over and over again.

Talk radio spews so much shock, lies, and hate. People on both sides of the political and religious divide post things on social media that are blatantly partisan and just plain ugly. It’s as though we live in silos of like-minded people beset by all those supposed enemies out there. I’ve been resisting getting a Twitter account because it ratchets up the intensity with a constant feed of belligerent and demeaning hashtags.

This puts a whole new twist on Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Jesus begins by instructing us to never retaliate in kind. That’s radically counter-cultural because retaliation and a thirst for revenge are hardwired into our national culture. We need enemies. On a personal level, if you’re mean to me, I’ll be mean to you. As the familiar saying goes, “I don’t get angry, I get even!”

It’s not only about getting even. Instead, the threat is that I can do much worse to you. The Law of Moses sought to set strict limits on such retaliation by proscribing an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  Payback cannot be greater than the harm that was done to you. Even so, it eventually leaves us all blind and toothless. We need a more deep-seated response that goes beyond tit-for-tat and gets to the root of the problem.

Jesus’ radical response is wrapped up in his command, “Do not resist an evildoer.” The Greek verb translated as “resist” is used most often in a military context where it refers to “armed resistance.” Jesus goes beyond that by telling us to never pay back in kind—not even a person with evil intentions who has treated me very badly. Just because you did it first, doesn’t make it right for me. Isn’t that what we tell our children when they get into fights? If I respond in kind, I’ll become just as bad because such stuff is contagious.

Loving enemies is the very nature of God who treats all people impartially no matter how good or evil they may be. The sun shines and the rain falls on all of us. Our God is love! If we, in turn, play favorites by being especially generous and loving to those who support us and nasty and vengeful to those who are against us, we’re no different from those we despise and consider to be our enemies.

Being a Peace Church

We’re in the process of changing the name of our church from “Northern Virginia Mennonite Church” to “Daniels Run Peace Church.” What does being a peace church look like? Our Mennonite tradition has a long heritage of saying no to war because we can’t reconcile Jesus’ command to love our enemies with killing them. Along with the Quakers, the Church of the Brethren, and many other conscientious objectors we insist that war is never the answer. A personal example is that I registered as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and served our country as an orderly in a mental hospital.

Refusing to go to war is a powerful witness to God’s love but it’s not enough. We need to also actively promote peace in our community. One way in which our church does that is through supporting the Fairfax County Student Peace Awards program, which awards high school seniors selected by their school for their peace and justice initiatives. We also support the organization Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence. Each year we place a “Memorial to the Lost” on our church lawn remembering all those killed by gun violence in the metro DC area.

There are many ways to be a peace church. For instance, our church garden, caring for Daniels Run, and restoring our woods are all kinds of peace efforts. One of the biggest challenges to being a people of peace is to know how to respond when we have personally been harmed. Being in that gay nightclub in Orlando or loving one of those who was killed would mean having to live with a nightmare for the rest of your life.

This mass shooting happened almost one year after Dylan Roof, a troubled young man filled with white supremacist ideology, killed nine people during a Bible study at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Among those killed was their beloved pastor Clementa Pinckney. Shortly after this horrific tragedy some church members and relatives of those murdered surprised lots of people when they said that it was their Christian duty to forgive Dylan.

Jeffery Brown from PBS recently interviewed pastor Betty Deas, the new pastor of Mother Emanuel. Betty is such a warm person with a wonderful smile. Jeffery asked her how the congregation was doing and she responded that they are slowly progressing but still grieving. She said it’s so good when people can start laughing again.

Jeffery then asked her about those expressions of forgiveness. Her response is a wonderful example of the gospel in action. She told Jeffery that forgiveness is more than an emotion, it’s a choice. We choose to not respond in kind or to try to get even. Sure, our emotions are still raw and it’s okay to be angry and to want to withdraw for a while. If she ever has the opportunity to meet Dylan Roof she will tell him that Jesus loves him and that there is forgiveness and life beyond the horrible thing he did.

A woman recently came to talk with her about what happened. The woman seemed withdrawn and Betty reached out to hug her. The woman responded, “Before you hug me, I need to tell you that I’m Dylan Roof’s aunt.” Betty, responded, “You still need a hug don’t you?” They hugged and then they talked.

Betty said that Charleston still has a long way to go in race relations but they have already come so far. She talked about the wonderful way in which all kinds of people responded to the shooting with an outpouring of sympathy and love. It brought the whole community together across racial divides.

That’s the power of love and forgiveness—a power much stronger than fear and hate. This is our identity. It’s who we are as followers of Jesus who obey his command to love our enemies. And that’s what a peace church looks like.

An Empowered Faith Community

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Daniels Run flowing though the woods behind our church

What does an empowered faith community look like? An often overlooked example is a brief description in Luke’s Gospel, which immediately follows the story of the unnamed woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair (7: 36-50). Her action is an example of genuine hospitality in comparison to that of Simon the owner of the house who has not even extended to Jesus the customary hospitality given to guests.

Mihee Kim-Kort, writing in The Christian Century, says that “[we] often forget the women. Do you see this woman? The way she throws off cultural expectations and norms by giving fully of herself in the moment? What if our hospitality were rooted in this kind of love and fearless intimacy, a reckless abandonment that allows for the giving and receiving of salvation and wholeness?”

In response, Jesus assures her that she has received God’s forgiveness and peace. Absorbing that realization had to be powerfully liberating, yet the woman needed a new and different community to live a truly empowered life. That’s why I love the way Luke’s Gospel gives us this glimpse of a liberated community of women and men working together (8: 1-3). This is the antidote to the chauvinism of a man like Simon whose prejudices keep him from seeing the woman for who she is.

That courageous woman’s loving act has given Jesus new energy as he now continues his mission of “proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.” We will want to especially notice who is traveling with him. All have been freed from the personal demons that had previously tormented them.

There’s now a whole cohort of liberated women alongside the twelve disciples.  I’m sure the unnamed woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears was among them. Notice that these were empowered women—not rescued women still beholden to others. The group included many who were supporting the Jesus movement with their personal resources. Such inclusive, empowered community is the genius of Jesus and his band of disciples.

Finding Hope in a Briar Patch of Troubles

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A thicket of greenbriar and multiflora rose in our church woods

Proverbs chapter eight is a delightful ode to creation. It transports us back to the very beginning in the mists of time where Wisdom is personified as a woman telling us the story. She and God delight in each other as they toil together to create everything that exists.  Wisdom says she “was rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

The world as we know it today is broken and painted with darker colors. The Apostle Paul characterizes it as the human race and all of creation groaning together in labor pains as we wait for our redemption and for a new world to be born. Old Testament professor Safwat Marzouk aptly describes this groaning:

Communities around the world are suffering climate change, civil war, terrorism, forced migration, and much more. Churches are weary of polarization and division, and many now lack the ability or desire to have fellowship with people who are different from them. Individuals struggles with cancer and migraines and aching bones, or walk with loved ones who do (The Christian Century, May 11, 2016: 22).

The American Dream insist that our standard of living should keep getting better for each generation. We believe this is our American birthright and try to remain oblivious to all the painful realities around us. Others of us have lost hope in a better future as we see our former standard of living slipping away. As a consequence, there has been an alarming increase in alcoholism, drug dependency, obesity, and suicide in working class communities.

The past several decades have been especially difficult for churches. Denominational institutions have had to continually cut staff and programs as their budgets slowly dried up. Church membership has been declining for decades but then more rapidly since the beginning of this century. We remain deeply divided over things like abortion, same-sex marriage, and racial and cultural differences.

Our denomination is experiencing a major schism as various conferences and congregations decide to leave because of such differences. A recent church news article breaks my heart. Several conferences recently voted to leave Mennonite Church USA. This has created a dilemma for many congregations because they now need to make a painful choice between their conference and their denominational affiliation. This ongoing struggle is a constant drip, drip, drip that erodes our faith and hope.

It gets so discouraging! I try to ignore such struggles and put my passion and energy into the life and mission of our church here in Northern Virginia. There’s wisdom in not getting wrapped up in larger church conflicts to the detriment of the local church. Still, like it or not, denominational matters affect us and we can’t just stick our heads in the sand and ignore them.

The challenge is to have our lives formed by a hope that’s grounded in the creative and redeeming work of God. When we do that we’re capable of confronting these kinds of difficulties with grace. Paul’s letter to the Romans gives us some handles on how to do that. He says that we have been made righteous through Christ’s faithfulness combined with our faith. This confidence and faith gives us peace with God. We have an audacious hope.

We boast of this hope. It’s not something to keep under wraps or to be modest about. Then Paul takes an unexpected turn when he exclaims, “We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5: 3-4). The path to a new humanity winds its way through a briar patch of troubles.

I find it hard to gracefully accept troubles. They make me despondent and ashamed of myself and my church. A voice inside me laments that we could do so much better. We certainly could! What I fail to recognize is how we get there. We don’t insist on black and white answers and we don’t just throw up our hands and walk away.

We, instead, persevere and develop character in the process. And as we develop character our faith and hope increase. I love the way Paul concludes, “This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5: 5).

A Mother’s Day Tribute

Giving birth and nurturing new life are special gift from God. That’s why we pay tribute to all mothers on Mother’s Day. My wife Ruth and I enjoy the PBS television series “Call the Midwives.” It’s based on the story of a religious order of nuns and other midwives working with them to serve a working class community in London in the 1950s. This was the beginning of the National Health Service in Great Britain.

It was a tough world but it was also a genuine community of workers, mothers, shopkeepers, clergy, and healthcare providers who loved and cared for all their children. There’s both joy and heartache in each episode of the series. As a pastor, I appreciate the mostly positive role that the church plays. The story revolves around those tough and resilient midwives, the mothers, and the families they serve. Those of them who are not able to have children of their own become mothers in other ways through their service.

In that respect, we also pay tribute to all of us who take on mothering roles regardless of gender or having biologically given birth to a child—we dare not forget grandmothers. All mothers and those who support them are the unsung heroes in our society. These are the most important responsibilities in our world.

It’s fitting to make the connection between our creator God and the life giving and nurturing role of all mothers. I especially appreciate the poem “Mothering God You gave Me Birth,” by Mennonite poet Jean Janzen based on the writings of the 13th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich.

Mothering God, you gave me birth
in the bright morning of this world.
Creator, Source of every breath,
you are my rain, my wind, my sun;
you are my rain, my wind, my sun.

This year Ascension Day and Mother’s Day fall within several days of each other; let’s see if we can make a connection between Mother’s Day and Ascension Day. Christ’s ascension takes place 40 days after Easter. In the Bible, the number 40 is mythically alive. Rain fell for 40 days on Noah’s ark; the Children of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years; a woman is secluded for 40 days after giving birth; and Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days before launching his ministry. All are pregnant times with a religious future.

Psalm 47 is a customary scripture readings for Ascension Day, It celebrates God as king over all the earth. The vision of God’s kingship is multidimensional, involving memory of the past, experience of the present, and hope for the future. It reaches back to the story of creation where God creates a living ecosystem out of barren chaos. It also reveals what God is doing behind and beyond the confusion of much that is happening in the world. As a people of faith, we absorb headline daily news with this realization.

God reigns over the nations and this means that, as a people of God, our identity transcends our ethnic and national identities. As Christians, our story transcends the American story. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote about how broken our national story is and how this is shaping our presidential primary in ugly ways:

Up until now, America’s story has been some version of the rags-to-riches story, the lone individual who rises from the bottom through pluck and work. But that isn’t working for people anymore, especially if people think the system is rigged. I don’t know what the new national story will be, but maybe it will be less individualistic and more redemptive. Maybe it will be a story about communities that heal those who suffer from addiction, broken homes, trauma, prison and loss, a story of those who triumph over isolation, social instability and dislocation so common today (New York Times, April 29, 2016)

As followers of Jesus, we have a contribution to make to the new national story that David Brooks envisions. Rather than a story of pluck and self-sufficiency, our story is about giving love, nurture, care, dignity, and justice—especially for those who are most vulnerable. We respond as the people of our mothering God.

Observing Earth Day

20150830_2Eagle 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.