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The Well-being of All Creation

This week in my church’s “video quilt” (a way we worship virtually to prevent transmitting COVID-19), we prayed for the well-being of all creation—the air, land, and water—all that God has made. Yet, in such a time as this, when a pandemic has changed all of our lives, when racism has reared its ugly head (yet again), and when we prepare for an election only a few months away—are we remembering our duty to the well-being of this creation?

Prayer ought to lead to duty. Duty, after all, is sister to love. The love of God. The love of this created world.

203_co2-graph-061219(Credit: Luthi, D., et al.. 2008; Etheridge, D.M., et al. 2010; Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.) https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

Creation is suffering

One way is through climate change. The facts are established now. Beginning in the 1950s, carbon dioxide began increasing rapidly. NASA says the increase is unparalleled in millennia. This surge in CO2 is trapping heat in earth’s atmosphere.

As result, the average surface temperature has risen dramatically. We have faced the six “warmest years on record” since 2014. “Not only was 2016 the warmest year on record, but eight of the 12 months that make up the year — from January through September, with the exception of June — were the warmest on record for those respective months” (NASA).

Ice sheets have shrink, glaciers have retreated, sea levels have risen—none of this is conjecture. All of this is occurring today. Bigger heat waves, more frequent category 4 and 5 hurricanes, loss of once habitable land—all will intensify if humans fail to act now for the well-being of all creation.

What are we doing?

The air, land, and water–all are at risk.

me birds 3 0803182032-1Birds, which I watch daily at my feeders, with joy, live among each of these three realms.

In one of my favorite documentaries, “Winged Migration,” I’ve watched repeatedly as the film follows terns and ducks, sand hill cranes and sage grouse, Canadian geese and migratory penguins around the globe, flying south in the fall and then north again in the spring. I am transported; immersed in this world above and about us, and awakened to new obstructions to bird migrations as human communities expand.

800px-Sand_Hill_Cranes_over_Lake_Pasadena_(FL)_(22909763321)

This image was originally posted to Flickr by joiseyshowaa at https://flickr.com/photos/30201239@N00/22909763321. It was reviewed on by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.

One of the most important laws that helped these creatures—the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA)–is being gutted. The law was put into place about a century ago. The National Audubon Society says that the MBTA protects nearly 1,100 bird species. But key provisions are now being changed. And the authors know these changes will lead to the death of birds, and they suggest that the world (humans) will be better off with less of these creatures.

I know that changing this law in this way is wrong. We are better off with more birds, not less.RB blue bird 30713408_10213452036388460_184333558188343296_n

Air, land, water, and the creatures that live in them: all are at risk.

In such a time as this, when our attention is justifiably diverted to so many other urgent matters, can we remember this prayer for the well-being of all creation, the air, the land, the water, and all that God has made?

We are failing to address climate change. We are destroying essential Acts that seek to protect nature. We must not pray for the well-being of creation while failing in our duty to protect it. In such a time as this…

Will we act for the well-being of creation?

Caring for the Animal World is Messy, Sometimes Terribly Sad, and Full of Opportunity

I’ve had some terrible experiences with pets. When one of my pet white rat mothers died, leaving the remaining mother with 13 babies, and this mother went insane, suffocating and partially eating the babies, I learned of the horrors that can occur in nature.

When I discovered our beloved cat Midnight stiff in the ivy beside our garage–she, along with several other animals in our neighborhood, had been poisoned overnight by an unknown, vicious person—I wept.

When a tortoise found wandering around my elementary school was given to me by the school principal and I took it—a little girl carting it for blocks to offer it a home alongside our own desert tortoises—but then we discovered that this tortoise carried an upper respiratory disease sweeping through the California desert tortoise community that soon killed a number of our family’s tortoises, we all grieved.

me 20190702_191659Loving other animals (humans are animals too) has confronted me with horror, tragedy, mourning, and loss. Yet my life has been replete with animals. This picture of me is evocative: encircled by turtles, holding a cat, with a puppy nearby! Paradoxically, it was in caring for such animals that my love for nature was nurtured.

When I was growing up, our family rescued, hatched, and raised over 80 desert tortoise—keeping most in our improvised “turtle yard.”

My mom couldn’t say no to any dog who, frightened by the sound of fireworks, found its way to our front porch year after year on the 4th of July. We always tried to find a lost animal’s home before keeping it, but quite often the lost pet became ours.

Before her murder, our cat Midnight gave birth to a litter of kittens and Shadow (the one we kept) lived to be 21 years old—a full life.

We brought home tadpoles, hatched them, and then loosed them in the thick ivy of our back yard. For over a decade, huge toads, bloated by a diet of flies, mosquitoes, and grasshoppers, emerged from the ivy, living high on the prolific insect supply.

When one of our cats caught birds, and brought them to our porch to show off its prize, when possible, we rescued, tended, and released them.

Our family cared for dogs, cats, tortoises, white rats, a skunk, a chipmunk, birds, frogs, horny toads, and fish. Many lived into old age, the tortoises saved from roads littered with roadkill, dogs taken in and made part of the family, and cats living to die natural deaths in a secure home.

Sometimes the tragedies seemed to exceed the joys, as they sometimes do in the rest of life. But most of life is composed of everyday experiences, and my daily life intermingled with that of these animals. I learned that caring for the animal world is work, dangerous, messy, and sometimes terribly sad; and it is full of love, joy, and the opportunity to observe, tend, and appreciate our fellow earthly inhabitants.

Tending and loving them is personal, practical, local, national, global, and must reach the level of policy.

Humans were not given the earth for ourselves (if you believe in the record in Genesis). We were meant to be caretakers, not takers.

Humans are big, and powerful, and violent, and our interactions with the world have often been deeply destructive. We have functioned as a “planetary disease,” destroying the environment on which all species depend. Yet our human world is only one of a myriad of other worlds God made that coexist with ours but are often out of sight, worlds inhabited by birds, fish, reptiles, insects, and mammals like ourselves.

Today, five bird feeders surround my home, and I watch these winged creatures in a fairly natural habitat. This spring and early summer, pine siskin, red robins, American goldfinch, red cardinals, house finch, woodpeckers, nut hatch, and humming birds have roamed my gardens. The birds tend to their own needs; my feeders merely add to their pleasure.

I am less acquainted with the birds’ sorrows than I have been with those of my pets. But I’m aware that suffering takes place. Out of my sight, tragedies are unfolding. I’ve been acquainted with great loss associated with loving creatures from these other worlds. I’ve felt horror at their suffering. So today, when I hear of sea turtles, seals, seabirds, fish, whales, or dolphins suffering and dying after ingesting plastic, I grieve. When I hear of disappearing species, lost due to habitat destruction, I mourn.

Perhaps the sorrow I’ve known as a pet owner has developed compassion for these earthly fellow-inhabitants, stirring my concern for the natural world. I hope so. And I’m trying to turn my sorrow infused concern into more responsible actions.

In every election—local, state, and national—you have the opportunity to do the same. In your workplaces and your homes, you can seek to care for the world rather than injure it. Listed below are a few key organizations that can help—most have local chapters where you can become engaged. We must all find ways to turn a love of nature into urgent action.

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The God of Other Worlds

My children groan when I mention the documentary “Winged Migration,” which I’ve watched several times. Each time I see it, though, I’m reminded of a world that coexists with ours but is out of sight—often beyond our imagination. In this world high above myriad bird species fly thousands of miles from north to south and back, circling the globe, year after year. Like ephemeral beings, a few enter for a short while into our sight, then disappear. But the world they inhabit in this other sphere is as real as ours, filled with birthing, tending, gathering, singing, exerting, enduring, living, and dying.

sea CaptureAn air world. One of God’s other worlds, intersecting our own.

I discovered a similar world undersea, snorkeling in the warm waters off the Hawaiian Islands. Coral reefs drew sea species to feed. I was mesmerized by this world—where yellow sea snakes slithered; tang and butterfly fish glided by; green sea turtles emerged to investigate and descend again; and damselfish swarmed. I only fingered the fringe of this undersea world, a world of a million species, many yet unknown to human kind.

A great underwater world. One of God’s other worlds, intersecting our own.

Humans are big, and powerful, and violent. We destroy bird species for pleasure, like the passenger pigeon lost long ago. We pollute coral reefs, draw birds to destruction with our lights, chop down forest cover, and over fish the seas. Sometimes we do so unawares, forgetting how big we are. Sometimes we do so out of selfish ends.

The creatures in these worlds are mostly out of our sight. But we are everywhere in theirs. We drain their nesting grounds, dump our rubbish in their waters, and fish their kind to near extinction. They cannot comprehend what we are doing; they cannot stop us. They only know that it is harder to find a mate; their resting place is gone; their coral reef is dying.

Ian L. McHarg called humankind “A planetary disease … an epidemic, multiplying at a super-exponential rate, destroying the environment upon which he depends, and threatening his own extinction.” When we act like a disease, we imperil other worlds.

We imperil other worlds when we forget who we were meant to be. Like Tolkien’s Ents, we were meant as creation’s caretakers, not “takers” for our personal pleasure.

We imperil other worlds when we forget what the other creatures are. God is a God of other worlds. These worlds are His handiwork. They are His creation. They give Him pleasure.

We live on a beautiful planet, home to 7.6 billion humans. But it is also home to others—in the air, on the land, and in the sea—with billions of other species living lives of their own. We should ensure that these other worlds, ephemeral to us but vital, can continue.

We think we are the dominant species, but we are nothing without the other species with whom we share this planet. We live in a world of intersecting worlds. God’s worlds. Doom these other worlds, and we doom ourselves.

Cherish these other worlds, though, and joy upon joy! Now and then, we intermingle—ephemeral encounters with a world of winged migrations and swarming creatures of the sea.

 

Gratitude Practices

I often begin my morning listing five things for which I’m grateful. Often they are small things—a cardinal outside the window, a call from a friend. I have much to be thankful for, and I make this practice part of my devotions. I think I’m going to start a thankfulness list, though, for the foods I am privileged to eat today, for many foods are treasures that are here today, but may be gone tomorrow.

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Orange Grove in the Inland Empire. Credit below.

My home in the Inland Empire sat 30 to 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Our street, like many in the burgeoning towns that eat into the California desert today, was commandeered from the lemon and orange orchards that once were ubiquitous in this part of California, and our developments were sculpted from them.

 

Rich earth had fed those trees, and we, the residents of the developments that caused their demise, inherited what remained of that good earth.

The oranges came to California in the early 1800s with the mission padres, who carried individual trees north from Baja into Upper California. The first sweet orange grove “was planted in the garden of the San Gabriel Mission by Father Francisco Miguel Sanchez in 1803,” according to a history compiled by the Inland Orange Conservancy, a non-profit group dedicated to protecting the few remaining groves in Southern California. They were largely confined to mission compounds until the 1850s—the time of the California gold rush. (For those interested, here’s the link to the Inland Orange Conservancy – Home | Facebook page.)

In the 1880s Eliza Tibbit, a famous horticulturist, agronomist, abolitionist (and more) used her connections to obtain a new seedless orange, which originated in Brazil. Her trees flourished and laid much of the foundation for the orange industry in California; by the 1940s, an impressive 75 million cases of navel oranges were being shipped from southern California orange groves throughout the United States, Europe, and the world!

These orange trees were later confiscated by developments like the one where I grew up, developments that were built to house half a million or so of the 16 million soldiers who, like my dad, my uncle Roy, and countless others, returned en masse from World War II.

My development had been surrounded by block-long groves to the west of my house, and more, further to the north and east. But I watched these groves progressively disappear throughout the march of my childhood.

The groves were doomed, cornered like stray orange pieces sewn here and there in a cement-colored quilt of growing feeder streets and suburban developments. As the groves disappeared, the rich earth they fed on went too, covered by stucco structures and asphalt pavement.

Most of the groves of my childhood experienced a demise. Today, though, whole foods that we depend upon are at risk of disappearing.

orange tree16142454_10208240366751717_4284977956070090556_nOranges and lemons, from California, to Texas, to Florida, to the U.S. Virgin Islands, are at risk today from a plant disease known commonly as Citrus Greening (short for Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus—a name I’ll never remember). Apparently it is one of the most serious plant diseases in the world. The United States Department of Agriculture offers a list of things people can do to help avoid spreading the disease.

Coffee and bananas are both in trouble. Forbes just published a story on a report that “60% of wild coffee species are under threat of extinction. This includes the wild species of Arabica, the most popular cultivated coffee species accounting for 60% of global production.” Coffee’s potential demise is directly attributed to the changing climate in coffee growing regions.

Bananas have been at risk for decades. In Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, Dan Koeppel reminded me that the bananas I ate as a child tasted better than the ones I find in my grocery store today (which may be why I loved them then but don’t like them now).

We grew up with a banana called the Gros Michel, which tragically became commercially extinct in the mid-1960s from Panama disease. Banana growers were forced to switch to the less tasty Cavendish, which stores sell now. But the Cavendish and many lesser known banana varieties are under threat by a new form of Panama disease that has traveled from Southeast Asia and is now ravishing Africa. Scientists are working overtime to find solutions to this new threat.

Our memories are short. But once a grove or species is lost, it is hard or impossible to replace it.

  • Recognizing that we were granted stewardship of this planet by God to protect it, and not to use it for selfish ends,
  • acknowledging the reality of climate change and getting on board with efforts to address it, and
  • beginning gratitude practices for the good fruits of the earth

may help us start to appreciate these treasures and stop taking the harvests of this amazing but fragile good earth for granted.

 

Orange grove photo credit: By Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14784771735/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/armstrongnurseri1909arms/armstrongnurseri1909arms#page/n8/mode/1up, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42134261

God’s Immanence in a Rose: Reflections from New Year’s Day

Scotland 12 37217421_10212201409055299_7486753352756232192_nAt the Rose Parade, flowers reign. For those unversed in parade rules–every surface inch on every float—from huge twirling elephants to the image on the elephant’s IPad—must be covered in natural materials–dried stretched seaweeds, tea leaves, cranberry seeds, corn, beans, or rice. Herbs like cumin and cloves. Carnations, mums, daisies, orchids, bird of paradise flowers, and half a million or more roses. No artificial plant materials or coloring are allowed—nature’s colors are dramatic enough.

New Year’s Day, to me, always means the Rose Parade. Watching in 2019, its 130th anniversary, the parade of floats evoke the sublime!

I lived in Pasadena, the Parade’s home, for six crucial years of my life. I attended Pasadena City College for one year (before transferring to Occidental College nearby), worshipped at a Pasadena church, met and married my husband in Pasadena, graduated from Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, and stood on Colorado Boulevard watching the Rose Parade as often as I could.

One year when I was a child, my dad packed my sister and I into our VW bus, drove to Pasadena, parked near the parade route, and staked out a viewing place while my sister and I struggled to sleep in the van. The overnight celebrations on the parade route are lively. We didn’t sleep much. By the time we found our spot and the parade began, I could barely keep my eyes open.

I’ve camped in the van, slept on the sidewalk to get a seat at the curb, stood behind deep rows of crowds to catch parade glimpses, and sat in the bleachers (once).

Many of my pivotal life memories occurred in this city that dedicates its parade to roses—a parade that reminds me how much poorer the world would be without flowers.

To me, God shows up in flowers.

God as transcendent, who exists above Creation, and God as immanent, who can be met through Creation, join harmoniously in the theology that guides my life. As St. Patrick put it:

I arise today, through God’s strength to pilot me,

God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to guide me….

I arise today, through the strength of heaven,

The light of the sun,

The radiance of the moon….

To the Christian academic and writer C. S. Lewis, beauty—like music or the scent of a rose—serve as a metaphor of our longing for Heaven. In his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis wrote:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing…. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

God present in the world He has made. Through it, God hinting at a world we have not yet seen. God present in roses—even at the Tournament of Roses.

One more reason to protect the flora and fauna of this world.

Why Dad? From High in Our Mulberry Tree

When I was just big enough to climb trees, my dad built my sister and me a tree house: flat-bottomed, 4’/4’ square, with 1’ high sides. He built it in our sturdy fruitless mulberry tree, where the bark was rough, the leaves ample, and the environment suitable for a small girl who needed to escape her house, with its many tensions, and who would always need to explore the outside world.

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The fruitless mulberry. Wikimedia.

The tree house had a rope attached with a bucket, where my mom could place sandwiches and supplies. This made it perfect.

I often ventured into the upper regions, stepping near the trunk where the branches were strong. From my perch high in the mulberry, I had my first glimpses of a wider world.

Of course, I’d traveled in every direction I could see—from the Alpha Beta grocery store in the Northwest, to my elementary school in the Northeast; from Stater Brothers in the Southeast, past track homes like my own in the Southwest. But from high in the tree my mind wandered, and I wondered what lay further, what was beyond all that I could see.

From this tree I could stretch my eyes—I had a need to see distant places.

We humans need to stretch our eyes and see beyond our tiny worlds—physically and psychologically. We imagine something more, and we pursue it. We see an unknown object, and we examine it. We wonder how something works, and we attempt to repeat it. We see another way of doing something, and we consider its value for ourselves. We meet an unanswered question, and we ask “how?” and “why?”

This is the way we discover new views, ideas, perspectives, understanding, or facts.

I tell my first-year college students that one difference between high school and college is that in high school, you were frequently told who, what, when, and where, and the answers seemed settled. In college, you are expected to ask how and why, and to examine both the process and the results.

With a father like mine, asking how and why was inbred. Sometimes, such a querying spirit has felt troublesome (or it has appeared troubling to others). To me, being curious about the how and why has sent me on a path of never-ending exploration and growth.

When I was very young, my dad and I built a go cart together. I remember hammering and painting it, and I recall practicing with it on the pavement, but I do not remember ever using it in a go cart race—although that was our voiced intention.

“What makes it go, Dad? How will it stop?”

“You’ll make it go. You have to kick!” he explained. “We’ll put a brake on. I’m not going to let you race down the street without a damn way to stop.”

Or our homemade rock grinder. My dad built it from scratch—it looked like a cylindrical washing machine tube extracted from the machine, on legs.

“What is it dad; how does it work?” I asked, walking around it on all sides, my stumpy pigtails swinging.

“It’s a rock polisher! It spins, and uses rocks and sand to rub the rough edges off stones, like beach waves use sand to polish beach pebbles. I’m polishing obsidian nodules.” I looked at the machine dubiously. It spun slowly, rocks clanging, clunking.

How long will it take?” I queried.

“Days. You can’t be impatient.”

Why did you make a rock polisher dad? What are you going to do with the rocks?”

CO OBS Stone 3“I’m conducting tests. I want to know how long it takes to polish these raw stones.”

My dad kept records of his experiments. Periodically, he would remove a partially polished obsidian nodule, record the hours it had been in the polisher, and label it with tape. Today, I have some of these nodules, still marked. The longest recorded time says “72 hours.”

I learned to ask how and why because my dad was insatiably curious and interested in testing known and unknown processes for himself—and of course, I wanted to know what he was doing, how, and why.

When my dad learned that the soil in the Inland Empire was too cool to hatch tortoise eggs, he tried alternatives.

Why are you digging up the tortoise eggs, dad?!” I queried.

“They won’t hatch. We’re too far from the desert—it’s too cold here,” he explained. “So I’m putting them someplace warmer.”

He began by putting them in a box, covered by cloths, beneath the water heater. Later, he moved them to a home-made incubator with a temperature controlled light. His experiments worked—we hatched dozens of tortoises using these methods.

When some didn’t hatch, despite his efforts, he wanted to examine them. He placed unhatched eggs in a box and stored them—where else—in our refrigerator, for later study.

Give my mom credit for patience.

We all need to learn to go beyond what we already know or believe; to discover what we do not yet understand; to learn from God, nature, and others—those like ourselves and those quite different—to grow into truly empathetic human beings.

It takes humility to do that. Self-awareness, without pride. The space to stretch our eyes to new horizons and different ideas.

We may all want to begin by spending some time in a good tall tree.

It’s a brutal world. We don’t have to add to its brutality.

httpsgoo.glimagesyihtnZWhite ratsdownload
https://goo.gl/images/yihtnZ

When I was seven or eight I raised white rats. They often crawled under my shirt; I loved feeling their tickling toes as they scuttled across my shoulders, along the nape of my neck, and onto my head. They weren’t rats to me. They were like downy pet mice, overgrown.

 

Then one terrible night a mother in my white rat family went insane and killed all the babies. It was my fault, although it had been an accident. My two mother rats gave birth almost simultaneously to 13 offspring. One day, closing the cage door too quickly, I caught the neck of one mother in the door and she died. I felt terrible, for my pet’s death and for my culpability.

The next morning I hurried down the cement steps to our back patio, where the rat cage sat under the living room window, to check on my pets. What I saw has never left me. Half eaten baby rat bodies bloodied the cage floor, some sawn in two like gruesome casualties of a plane crash, chewed bits dangling from tiny body parts. Other babies, their noses protruding, shrunken but elongated from near suffocation, staggered hideously around the cage.

The surviving mother, driven mad, was running from side to side. Unable to cope alone, she was killing the brood. Did I scream? I don’t remember. I cried.

This was my first encounter with the horror that is part of nature, and with the knowledge that even animals can feel overwhelmed to the point of despair and insanity.

Nature is frequently brutal. At my home in Indiana I planted crocus to brighten early spring. Rabbits, ever prolific, gnawed my crocus to stubs before they ever bloomed. Then, a large hawk descended on the neighborhood and two mother foxes dug dark holes in a gulch behind our house, made burrows, and bore kits. Within a year, they killed every rabbit. That spring, my crocus survived. Bunnies are resilient, though. When the hawk and foxes went elsewhere looking for new food sources, the rabbits returned. Soon enough, so did the hawks.

Predators come, take, and leave when the takings are diminished. Like bunnies, the resilient may bounce back. It is a hard world though, and we sometimes wonder if we are among the resilient.

The younger of two sisters, I remember my anxiety as a child at the dinner table. When would I get my share? Would there be enough? Seeking my share first; seeking the bigger share. Anxiety driven dinner manners. The fear that we won’t get “enough” infects us all.

We learn to manipulate to get more. We rape the earth, despite its consequences. We become the predators.

Reinhold Niebuhr, a philosopher, theologian, and social activist who wrote from the 1930s-1960s, shed light on our capacity to be predators. A liberal who wanted to see greater justice in society, he also challenged the overly optimistic views of other liberals who argued that society was getting so much better it could be perfected.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr says that we oppress others most egregiously when we congregate, in our family, tribe, religion, nation, gender, society, profession, or international entity. “Serious sins are mostly communal sins,” he says, adding, “As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic, and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.”

The group becomes both rationale and means—locus of power—to ensure that we, at least, and those in our group, have enough, even if others have very little or unquestionably not enough, a “not enough” often caused because someone has taken more than they truly need.

This planet has horror enough without our contribution. It can be pitiless, independent of our actions. But tragically people, exploiting the world, are among its most ruthless occupants. Humankind, the great predators. We “plunder, rape, poison, and kill this living system,” as Ian L. McHarg argues in “Man, A Planetary Disease,” “threatening our own extinction.”

We have added immeasurably to the pain, suffering, and despair of the creatures with whom we share this world. We have decimated nesting places, put barriers across migration paths, drawn birds to their death with our indiscriminate use of urban lights, poisoned and polluted their dwelling places, and contributed to the extinction of countless species.

By removing environmental regulations that protect arctic waters, national parks, coastal lands, and air and water sources, we endanger our children’s world.my beacg16298579_10208367341446005_6683342185421786910_n We have done great harm, but we can reverse our course. We do not need to add more to the suffering of the world.

Life abounds with sorrow, but it also swells with goodness and beauty.

It is a broken, damaged world, yet the glory of God still glows within. We can chose whether we add to the brutality of the world or not.

We are not insane. Not yet.

Sanctuary and Science

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Wikimedia.org

Abruptly my father stopped the car, pulling to the side of the road where Holt Boulevard, which runs through my home town of Ontario, California, merges into Interstate 10. It was a dry, clear night—perfect for looking at a brilliantly lit, star-studded sky.

We parked our Volkswagen bug on the verge, climbed out of the car, and made our way through a line of towering, sparsely limbed eucalyptus trees that framed the roadway.

Stepping from beneath the tree coverage, we looked up. I gazed in awe.

Glowing stars crowded the sky. They peppered the heavens to the borders of my vision. The Milky Way blazed in transcendent glory.

And as I looked at that brilliantly lit night sky I sensed a living presence, bigger than myself, or my father, or even the expanse of stars that filled the sky. It was a pressing presence, a voice of a different kind, so clear that I cannot forget it to this day.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).

This encounter was my first inkling of faith. To me, creation became the sanctuary where faith became incarnate. As faith became incarnate through creation, creation became something to respect and care for.

photo by jeremy-thomas-on unsplash.com99326
By Jeremy Thomas on unsplash.com

A few months ago, I heard two stories arising from science that added to my awareness of the sublimity of creation and of the challenges humans face in protecting it.

During NPR’s Ted Talk hour, historian David Christian described the amazing confluence of events that occurred with the big bang and led to the emergence of the human species. Our species, he explained, is unique among all others in our ability to create language “so powerful and so precise that we can share what we learn with such precision that it can accumulate in the collective memory. And that means it can outlast the individuals.” He calls this “collective learning,” and says this learning enables us to transform our environment in ways far beyond the abilities of all other species.

But Christian reminded his audience that this ability also creates dangers, for us and the entire planet. “Collective learning,” he argued, is a “powerful force, and it’s not clear that we humans are in charge of it.” He noted that some of our weapons could destroy the entire biosphere, and our rapid burning of fossil fuels may alter the conditions under which humans have flourished over the last ten thousand years. Our story, he argued, which shows us how special it was that we arrived as we did, also suggests that we should stop focusing on our differences—family, tribal, national, cultural, religious—and concentrate instead on our similarities as a unique species on earth in a vast universe.

Earlier that day, though, I read another story that explains, at least in part, why we don’t.

In The Book of Joy, which records a conversation by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “narrator” Douglas Abrams (yes, a book by a Buddhist, Christian, and Jew) mentioned a discovery from neuroscience. Neuroscientists have learned that humans have three deep, evolutionary “innate (and often unconscious)” goals or drives. One of them is to cooperate.

Sounds good. But…

They also discovered that we have been “hardwired to cooperate with and be kind to those who look like our caregivers.” Meaning we cooperate with those we think of as in our “group,” and we are wary of or less likely to cooperate with those we consider outside our group.

Our dilemma lies between the big picture and the small one.

The big picture:

Seen from a religious point of view, a real being exists behind this amazing creation. Creation speaks; it gives voice to its creator and beckons us through what has been made. It is a sanctuary pointing us to a living God. How can we not cooperate to protect this precious planet, which is a means by which our creator reveals himself to us?

Seen from a scientific point of view, we are a rare outcome of eight billion years of evolution, a fantastically complex species at the far corner of a vast universe. How can we not unite around our similarities as a species, our interconnectedness within this limited biosphere, and use our unique abilities to protect this fragile planet that is our home?

Behold, they agree!

But… the small picture:

The religious view: We sin. We think of ourselves first and struggle to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” We look out for ourselves and our groups before we look out for others, because we are self-centered and self-loving.

The scientific view: Our individual hardwiring makes us more interested in cooperating with our tiny group—our family, tribe, social class, nation, or religious affiliation–than with the whole of our unique species.

Fundamentally, and remarkably, they still agree.

We are one species, but we fail to love others. We are one, but we distrust others.

 

beach sky mine 16425716_10208380737260892_1771238825627494920_nWe are one, though; we are interconnected to all the creatures on this planet, and even to the fabric of the universe, however you understand that fabric.

We need to stand in awe of this biosphere, this interconnected world, this amazing universe, made, I would like to suggest, by a remarkable God in a very big bang.

For the sake of our planet, we who were given responsibility to nurture the earth, we who are uniquely gifted to pass on information to the generations who come after us, need to set our minds to stand with the big picture. And resist the little one.