For the Care of Creation

Today has been proclaimed by Pope Francis to be a World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation.  United with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, who have already been celebrating this day, on this day we ask God both for assistance in caring for creation and for forgiveness “for sins committed against the world in which we live.”  In his letter announcing the day, the Pope wrote

The annual World Day of prayer for the Care of Creation offers to individual believers and to the community a precious opportunity to renew our personal participation in this vocation as custodians of creation, raising to God our thanks for the marvellous works that He has entrusted to our care, invoking his help for the protection of creation and his mercy for the sins committed against the world in which we live.

Concern with our relationship to creation is not new.  One of the foundational principles of Catholic Social Thought is that of stewardship. A “steward” is someone who is entrusted with some good or talent on behalf of other persons; a steward is a manager and not an owner.

Stewardship, in the Catholic Social Thought tradition, derives from an understanding that God is the source of everything; everything we have – our time, our talents, all that is in the world – is a gift from God and we have an obligation to manage those gifts for the benefit of all; we are accountable to God for how we use those gifts. Created in God’s image, humans have a mandate to subject to themselves the earth and all it contains, but to govern the world with justice and holiness, with respect for all living creatures and the environment. In one sense, we show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation.

Stewardship is not a notion unique to Catholic Social Thought. Not only is this same notion of stewardship or trusteeship is found in Protestant forms of Christianity, but the Koran speaks of our being appointed by God as stewards over the earth, and, in Buddhist terms, the Dalai Lama speaks of the “universal altruism” and feeling of responsibility that is nonselective and applies equally to all that flows from a recognition of interconnectedness. Stewardship is perhaps better understood as a function of spirituality in broad terms, rather than the province of any one religion. In the words of one commentator, stewardship “is a deeply spiritual yet essentially practical question of how we react to the gifts and resources over which we have some measure of control and influence.”

This Day or Prayer for the Care of Creation is a good one for reflecting on our acts (and non-acts) with respect to the world we have been given.  How will you manifest your care of the environment?  What “sins committed against the world in which we live” do you need to repent for and avoid in the future?

For myself, I know I’m good about some things and less good about others.  I no longer buy bottled water when there is an alternative.  We don’t take extra plastic bags when buying produce at the store and we work hard at avoiding food waste.  I take short showers.  But we could probably drive less than we do.  I could be more careful about products that are better for the environment than others.  Etc.

Feel free to share your ideas for how you are caring for creation…or where you could be doing better.


Happy Earth Day!

Earth Day has been celebrated on April 22 for 45 years.  Here is a short account of the history of the day:

The idea came to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, he realized that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Senator Nelson announced the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” to the national media; persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair; and recruited Denis Hayes as national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the land.

As a result, on the 22nd of April, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values.

As we await Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Earth Day offers us an opportunity to examine our relationship to the gift of creation.  To consider the extent to which our own actions (and inactions) contribute to the preservation or deterioration of the environment.

It is true that lots of the problems that brought people to the streets in 1990 are bigger than any one individual – corporate pollution and oil spills.  But both through our power as consumers (from whom are you buying your products?) and in our homes and workplaces (are you recycling as much as you can? reducing waste in the first place? saving water and electricity?) we can make a difference.

And, as stewards over God’s creation, we are morally obliged to do so.

You can find a good ecological examen here.

God and Francis on the Environment

As I sat in my prayer space at home this morning, I looked out and saw the automatic sprinklers operating in my yard and those of neighbors. The scene reminded me of a post my friend Richard wrote last week, sharing a dialogue sent to him by his brother-in-law. The dialogue is humorous, but makes a point that is anything but funny.

Here is a portion or the dialogue:

“Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there on the planet? What happened to the dandelions, violets, milkweeds and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But, all I see are these green rectangles.”

It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers ‘weeds’ and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

Grass? But, it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees; only grubs and sod worms. It’s sensitive to temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make theSuburbanites happy.

Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it -sometimes twice a week.

They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?

Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

No, Sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And, when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

Yes, Sir.

These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it, so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

You can read the entirety of the dialogue here.

By pretty much any standard of measurement, we are doing a pretty miserable job of stewardship of this earth we have been given. We don’t conserve the resources we have, our actions degrade the environment, and what we do (and don’t do today) will have enormous consequences for those who follow us.

We need to do a better job.

Happy Earth Day 2013

Every year on April 22, more than one billion people take part in Earth Day, a day designed to focus our attention on the need to take action to protect our planet and its resources.

One of the basic principles of Catholic Social Teaching is stewardship – the idea that we have a responsibility to care for creation. God gave humans dominion over the earth’s resources, not for us to use according to our individual will, but for the good of all human beings. Stewardship obligates us to care for the earth, to use its resources wisely, and to preserve thsse resources for future generations. Stewardship also means respect for all of creation.

Our bulletin at Christ the King this week noted some sobering facts, including that

– more than one in every six people around the world lacks access to safe water for drinking, cooking and cleaning and more than 2.6 billion people lack access to basic sanitation.

– 70% of coral reefs are either threatened or destroyed, coral reefs that provide food, storm protection, jobs, recreation, and other income sources for more than 500 million people worldwide.

– over the last decade, approximately 13 million hectares of foret have been lost each year, forests that 1.6 billion people depend on in some way for their livelihood.

– more than 22% of the world’s plants are at risk of extinction and more than 24% of the world’s mammals and 12% of the world’s bird species are threatened.

What are going to do about it? Being good stewards requires a combination of individual and group actions.

Each of us needs to think about what we can do to make a difference.

How Would We Live?

How would we live if we knew the earth was sacred?
How would we live if we believed there was holiness in all?
How would we live?
How would we live?
Why dont’ we live that way now?

Those were the lines of a song we heard during opening prayer yesterday morning at the Spiritual Directors International annual conference I’m attending.

The thing is this: if we are Christians, we know that God is everywhere. That everyplace is holy ground. The everything is touched by the hand of God.

And that reality makes the final line of the song a challenge: Why don’t we live that way?

If we truly believe in God’s indwelling, in the sacredness of all things, how can we treat the earth the way we do? How can we not take better care of it than we do?

I don’t ask that in a preach-y way. I look at my own decisions. There are lot of ways I try to be a good steward. But I also know there are a lot of ways I could do more, ways I could be a better steward of the earth and its resources. And I’m guessing the same is true for you.

Perhaps reminding ourselves that the earth is sacred ground, that there is holiness in all, will help us in our efforts.

Not For Your Sacrifices Do I Rebuke You

At Mass this morning at Christ the King, we used an excerpt from Psalm 50 as the psalm between the two readings. I have doubtless heard these words before, but found them particularly powerful this morning.

Hear, my people and I will speak;
Israel, I will testify against you;
God, your God, am I.

Not for your sacrifices to I rebuke you,
for your holocausts are before me always.
I take from your house no bullock,
no goats from your fold.

For mine are all the animals of the forests,
beasts by the thousands are on my mountains.
I know all the birds of the air,
and whatever sits in the plains, belongs to me.

What good did it do God for the people to take what was already God’s and hand it back?

Reflecting on it afterward, the passage brought to mind the parable of the talents, which makes the same point in a different way. If all we do is re-wrap and give back to God that which God gave us, what good is that? It is how we use God’s gifts that bring glory and praise to God.

Ecumenical Partnerships: Environmental Stewardship

I pulled out my bag last night a brochure I took from a Lutheran church during my visit to Seattle last weekend. The brochure was for an organization in Washington called Earth Ministry, a faith-based organization concerned with engaging the Christian community in environmental stewardship.

In the almost twenty years it has existed, Earth Ministry has assisted religious congregations in integrating care of creation into all aspects of church life, offered resources to assist clergy and lay leaders to speak knowledgeably on environmental issues and trained people to be effective advocates on environmental matters. Its website has an enormous amount of useful information on environmental issues.

Earth Ministry partners with “Greening Congregations”, i.e., churches that “develop a written annual plan for integrating creation care into their congregational life in the areas of worship, education, facilities, and outreach. These goals should be achievable but also challenging, and the commitment is renewed annually to demonstrate a congregation’s long-term dedication to environmental stewardship.”

What was so compelling to me was that the list of Greening Congregations includes churches that are Unitarian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, UCC, Episcopal and several other denominations. The website includes a page titled Denominational Statements, which excerpts statements from documents of the various denominations setting forth that church’s understanding of the Christian commitment to stewardship and the environment.

There are certainly things that divide Christians and non-Christians and that divide different denominations of Christians. And there is certainly value in talking about those things. But it is also vitally important that we recognize those areas in which diverse religious communities can take united and concerted action – especially on issues as important as care of this world over which we have been appointed stewards. We need more organizations like Earth Ministry.

Note for my local readers: the Minnesota analogue to Earth Ministry is Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light…which I sheepishly confess I never heard of until what I read about Earth Ministry made me wonder if there was a similar organization here.

Stewardship vs. Ownership: A Parable

Today was graduation day for the University of St. Thomas School of Law. It was a joyful day for our students and their families. And I confess, as tired and warm as I may have been sitting on the stage during the ceremony, tears sprung to my eyes (as they do at graduation every year) as the President of the University spoke the words conferring the degrees upon our graduates.

The day began with a Baccalaureate Mass, celebrated by our Campus Minister, Fr. Erich Rutten, whose homilies always offer fruit for my reflection. Today was no exception.

Fr. Rutten spoke about various of the principles of Catholic thought to which our students have been exposed during their three years at the law school. When he spoke about how Catholic Social Thought understood property rights, he offered a simple, yet wonderful, parable.

Just as Jesus’ parables spoke to the experience of his listeners, Fr. Rutten invited the students to imagine that a law professor was going away for a time and asked a law student to house sit for him while he was gone. Imagine, he suggested, a law student who behaved as a responsible steward, taking good care of the house, enjoying it, but keeping it clean and in good repair.

Then, he invited, imagine instead a less responsible house sitter. This one had wild parties while the professsor was away. In fact, as time went on, the student began to think of the house as his own, treating it that way, with no thought for the law professor. In that case, imagine, he asked, what would happen when the law professor returned. What would his reaction be?

Although Fr. Rutten never used the term “parable” in telling his story, his story had all the force that Jesus’ parables would have had for his listeners (some of which, I fear, is often lost on us). As I was listening, I thought, how absurd! How could the law students ever think the property was his or hers? How could the student fail to realize he was only taking care of, and had only been given the responsible enjoyment of, that which ultimately belonged to someone else?

And that is precisly the reaction I expect Fr. Rutten was hoping to evoke. The realization that what seems so absurd to us in hearing the story is exactly how we treat this world we have been given. We have been granted stewardship over the gifts of this world, yet we act as though it is all ours to do with as we please. We never think to ask as the parable invites (indeed, demands) that we ask: How could we possibly think this?

We have been given this world to use and preserve as stewards. And, ultimately, we will be called to account for how we have cared for it.

Thanks for Fr. Rutten for a thought-provoking homily. And congratulations to the UST Law School class of 2011.

Personal Stewardship and Every Day Choices

From the standpoint of Catholic thought, the term stewardship refers to our recognition that everything we have is a gift from God and that we are intended to share those gifts with each other. Unfortunately, for too many people, stewardship is viewed as simply giving money: they think their stewardship obligation is satisfied by weekly offerings at Mass.

However, if we take stewardship seriously, we need to consider more than simply how much we contribute to our parish each week. Instead, we need to consider the choices we make in our every day lives and their implications for the world and our brothers and sisters. In the words of my parish’s stewardship brochure this year,

As Christians and as responsible world citizens, we must also make everyday choices based on more than self-interest. We must recognize that, as individuals, families and communities, we will either contribute to the problems of the world or pledge our efforts to the solutions.

Thus, we need to think carefully about things like what products we buy and what kinds of businesses we buy them from. Every decision we make has implications. Are we making thoughtful, positive choices are only thinking about ourselves?

The Natural Order

One of our excursions on our vacation here in Grand Marais was a visit to an Ojibwe Indian village at Grand Portage on the northern shore of Lake Superior. This is the spot where local fur traders and European traders met to exchange furs for food and European goods. While there were many interesting things about the fort and the Indian village, what most struck me was the explanation of the Indian planting.

The interpretive guide spoke of planting the “three sisters,” corn, string beans and squash. The corn was planted in the center of a mound of dirt, with string beans planted around the sides of the same mound. This made a perfect pairing, as corn leeches nitrogen from the soil and the beans put nitrogen in the soil. In addition, as the corn stalks grew, the bean tendrils attached to the stalks, allowing the stalks to serve as support as the beans grew, obviating the need for any supports or other trellis-type arrangement. Zucchini was planted on surrounding mounds. As its large leaves grew, they spread out and sheltered the surrounding mounds from the sun, meaning less water was needed to keep the mounds from getting dry.

The Indians also planted a “fourth sister” around the edges of the plot – sunflowers, which grew larger than any of the other plants. The seeds from the sunflowers fed the birds and the height of the sunflowers meant the birds would not swoop in to eat the corn.

Now, I’m no troglodyte opposed to innovation and invention. I am, after all, blogging on my computer from a place far from my native home. But as I reflect on the guide’s explanation, I am struck by the beauty of operating within the natural order. We so often think of an artificial way of addressing a problem. Too little nitrogen? Let’s put some artificial fertilizer in the soil. Pests bothering our crops? Let’s put some spray that will keep them away. In contrast, the Indians managed a way that naturally kept the soil working and a way to protect their crops while feeding the birds.

God created the earth and made humans – those God created in God’s image – stewards over all of creation. We could learn something from the Ojibwe Indians about how we exercise that stewardship.