By Robert M. Lewis
Seek the Lord while he wills to be found, call upon him when he draws near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the evil ones their thoughts. Let them return to the Lord.
This spring, the people of Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin experienced horrific flooding. Livestock died by the scores. Fields lie contaminated and cannot be planted. Corn reserves are lost. The effects of this disaster have yet to hit our grocery stores and gas pumps, or perhaps even affect those living on the coasts. Caused by record snowfalls, a sudden warming trend, freezing and thawing, and our being unprepared for the sheer magnitude of the water, it was an epic confluence of events. We saw the power of God in snow and rain and flood, a harbinger of nature’s ability to disrupt our lives.
But in the area between Grand Island and Kearney, Nebraska, each year during Lent, people from all over the nation also come to witness the annual migration of the Sandhill Crane. It is a sign of God’s perfect rhythms — like grace, ever present to those willing to receive it from their loving Creator. From time immemorial these regal birds make their way, resting, feeding, and preparing for the journey.
We can learn a great deal from nature. Considering that we have so much information, we are slow to remember that God has made his presence known over and over again in different media: the voices in our pulpits, the words inscribed by type in our Bibles, the pens of monk and scribe, the teaching of our Lord, Paul, Peter, and John, the prophets like Isaiah — and, yes, the signs in nature, which God declares good.
I found myself wrestling with the problem that the flooding and the migration of the cranes came at the same time. In my parish, St. Stephen’s in Grand Island, Nebraska, we have celebrated “Crane Sunday” for eight years now. The legacy of our Archdeacon, Betsy Bennett, Crane Sunday is a time of wrestling with our responsibility to care for God’s Creation, preserve what we have been entrusted, and, in the words of the Baltimore Grotto Caving Society, “Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.”
This odd conjunction in time — the coming of floods and cranes — offered a chance for us to get real with each other about our role as a church in setting things right, in being committed to care for Creation.
The theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote that we could learn a lot about God from nature, which he called general revelation. This world’s rhythms and laws were established by God in creation. While science tells us how these laws work, it is God who tells us why in the Creation account. Aquinas saw the reality and dignity of being a human person: an individual may come to know the truth and choose the good. While I can imagine there are many differing views on the science of climate change among those who will read this, I think that one thing all of us could agree upon is that whatever power we may have to refrain from hurting this fragile earth, we ought to do it. God is still speaking to us about our responsibility to be a steward of his creation, telling us, Return to the Lord.
For too long we have figured that it was someone else’s job to begin making changes. If it does not begin with individual churches and church members, who then will begin the action? Will we suffer more flooding? Will more businesses be lost?
There is a problem of theological myopia: What’s in it for me? Creation care asks a different question: What’s in it for those who come after me? It begs us look to at different solutions like curbing our consumption, rewarding those who minimize their packaging and use of plastics. True, we have taught our children to reduce, reuse, recycle, but we have been blind to real amendment of life.
In our super mobile, toss-and-go society, we buy new and rarely repair. We rarely reduce, and in fact we buy multiples. Our landfills are full. Less than 100 years ago, our trash per capita was a fraction. Our forebears held newspaper drives. They washed, reused, and saved aluminum foil. They found new uses for old things. Our culture was built upon repairing things that were broken.
This past summer, I had a little confrontation in a window store. I came in shopping for storm windows to cover my 1921 double-hung windows. I did this partly to protect my wavy period glass, but also for another level of insulation. The salesman told me nobody sells storm windows anymore (a lie) because they are inefficient. He showed me all of his special argon-filled windows, and I patiently listened. And then he asked me, “So what kind of windows would you like to have installed in your home?”
I replied, “I should imagine something with wavy glass, century-old hardwood, and with a protective cover.” I pointed out that I had done my research and that no window had an R-value that could justify destroying the old window. I also pointed out that I could replace my panes, should they break, with glass points and glazing. He looked stonewalled.
I then asked him, “So, if your windows break, how do I fix them?” He said, “Well, you have to replace it.”
Window after window will end up in a landfill. This is being penny wise and pound foolish in our attempts to reduce our carbon footprint. When did you last see a construction site that reused lumber or plumbing supplies? If not for the Habitat for Humanity ReStores dotting America, anything you remove from your home would be junk and not a treasure for another.
Seek the Lord while he wills to be found, call upon him — he is drawing near. God has given us to the tools to avert our role in global warming, but we keep choosing not to fix old things, choosing to throw away, instead of saving and reusing. The difference between innocence and wickedness is that we know different, better ways and we still choose selfishly.
But the good news is that God is still in the business of choosing us. He gives us warnings in things like abrupt changes in our weather. As if to shake us up and say, “We can expect more.” Scientists tell us that as the average temperature of our planet creeps upward, precipitation will increase along with greater evaporation. Every act of material conservation we do lessens the water or snow drenching our backyards.
Seek the Lord while he wills to be found. There will be a time when we can’t escape judgment, like when we have been warned, when we have used up our trees, warmed our world, and left nothing for our grandchildren.
Lent is a crossroads. A choice has to be made. We all share a sin-filled world. It is our task to live by our baptism and show Jesus’ light in the midst of the brokenness. Opportunities abound. Let’s be like the cranes — sure and certain signs that God’s patterns are still working. “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness; and he relents from doing harm” (Joel 2:12-13).
Now, will we listen?
The Rev. Dr. Robert M. Lewis is rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Grand Island, Nebraska.