By Bryan Owen
The cotton and soybean farm in the Mississippi Delta on which I grew up was in many ways a boy’s paradise. I spent countless hours playing outside with our wire-haired terrier, Grover. Stepping out of the house, we could wade through a field of cotton to a ditch filled with tadpoles and crawdads. Sometimes we’d go back behind the house to the orchard where apple, pear, and fig trees stood like sentinels around my dad’s garden filled with tomatoes, green beans, and squash.
If we didn’t want to stray too far, Grover and I would cross the street to go down to Beaver Dam Lake where cypress knees, moss, mosquitoes, dragon flies, snakes, turtles, and fish made their home. While there, we might visit Peanut, the pony who lived in the pasture by the lake and who loved to eat the green horse apples that fell from the trees and looked like cantaloupe-sized Martian brains. At night, I could hear the deafening chorus of frogs, katydids, and crickets from the lake as I went to sleep. When the moon was full, its soft light was so bright you could see your shadow on the ground. And in the summertime at night, the fireflies lit up the landscape as though the stars had descended to earth from heaven.
Those boyhood days were wonderful times, offering unique ways to experience the natural world. However, there were signs that not all was well in paradise. One instance in particular made an indelible imprint on me. It was the time of year when turtles would come up from Beaver Dam Lake into our yard to lay eggs. One day a particularly large turtle was crossing the road in front of our house when a pickup truck came barreling down upon her. Rather than slow down and move over to miss her, the driver ran right over her, crushing her shell into fragments and scattering broken eggs across the road. There was no doubt in my mind that it was a deliberate act. And even though I was only 10 or 11 years old, as I looked at the gruesome carnage left in the road, I felt in the depths of my being that I had witnessed a cruelty that can only be described as evil.
The Bible teaches that sin has dulled our capacity to discern in creation the holiness of God and the gift of a moral order in which all beings find their rightful place and purpose. Instead of beauty with its own intrinsic, God-given value, we too often see opportunities for satisfying selfishness. Instead of caring and serving, we have often marred the world’s beauty with ugliness.
We must acknowledge the tragic truth that everything has been corrupted by sin. As the apostle Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, the whole creation “groans” and “travails” in its longing to be “set free from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21, 22). Everything is fallen. Everything yearns for redemption and transformation.
The fallen state of God’s creation, along with our capacity for using science and technology for both good and evil, confronts us with a critical choice.
Shall we treat the world around us as “an image that reflects the presence of God” such that “nothing whatsoever can be neutral, [and] nothing at all lacks sacredness” (John Chryssavgis, Light Through Darkness: The Orthodox Tradition [Orbis, 2004], 111? Or shall we treat the world and the living beings in it as an impersonal, chance collection of matter propelled by blind forces that we can manipulate as we are able and see fit?
In other words, shall we be caretakers who conserve and enhance the beauty of creation? Or shall we be consumers who use creation for our selfish purposes and throw it away when no longer desired?
For the person who deliberately ran over the turtle in front of my house, the turtle was just a thing, just matter in motion, there to be used or abused and killed as we humans see fit, and without any second thoughts or qualms of conscience. After all, it’s just a turtle.
But is that how God sees it?
The first chapter of the first book of the Bible can expand our horizons in response to this question. As the creation of the world unfolds, we are told five times: “And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). And after the creation of man and woman in God’s image on the sixth day, we are told: “God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good” (Genesis 1:31).
Everything in creation is supremely good: the universe, stars, galaxies, planet Earth, rocks, glaciers, trees, oceans, clouds, rain, frogs, slugs, bugs, dogs, cats, human beings, turtles – you name it. God made it. God loves it. God sees it as precious and instills it with intrinsic value. And God created it to be beautiful and to reflect his glory.
God’s creation is good, but is held in bondage to decay due to the pervasive effects of human sin. The Good News at the heart of the Christian faith is that everything in the world is redeemed, sanctified, and glorified by the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus came among us in the flesh as the unique God-Man, crucified and raised from the dead, and shows us what God desires not just for Christians, but for the entire created order. God wants to redeem, sanctify, and glorify the whole world. And in Christ’s resurrection, we see the dawning of God’s new, redeemed creation. God’s kingdom is coming on earth as it is in heaven. Justice will be done. Peace will prevail. Eternal life will swallow up death forever. Sin and evil will be no more. Physical creation will no longer be subject to decay. And in this new, redeemed creation, even a lowly mother turtle will be safe to lay her eggs.
Our unique task as stewards and caretakers of “this fragile earth, our island home,” as Eucharistic Prayer C puts it, is to participate in the unfolding of God’s new creation inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus.
We fulfill that high calling when we use “the power of [our] love to bring the world alive, to give things the love, care, and use they need for their fulfillment” (Erazim Kohák, The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature [University of Chicago Press, 1984], 108).
We do it when we live lives of simplicity rather than extravagance, responding to ugliness with beauty, and combating hatred with love. We do it when we curb the excesses of waste and pollution, demonstrating genuine concern for those who come after us. And we do it when we care for the least of these among our fellow human and non-human creatures, treating all living things and the earth itself with gentleness and respect.
“The heavens declare the glory of God,” the Psalmist writes (Psalm 19:1), and “the loving-kindness of the LORD fills the whole earth” (Psalm 33:5). The whole world reflects the divine mystery of God’s loving providence and God’s desire that all creatures great and small thrive.
As stewards and caretakers of creation, may we have eyes to behold and value that divine mystery. May we have ears to hear the groaning of creation for redemption and hearts filled with the love of God for a good but fallen world. May we be filled with awe by the starry sky above and the moral law God has implanted in our hearts.
And may we always be willing to respond with the self-giving love of Jesus in anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s great plan of salvation: a renewed creation in which “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Habbakkuk 2:14).
The Rev. Dr. Bryan Owen is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.