Archives For Way Out There

Christians will not consistently reveal the abundant life God offers nor act as if God’s Creation mattered unless churches weave a whole faith into their worship, theology, and culture. I’m exploring what that would look like in what I call the “whole faith church.” This is another post in that series.

Few things communicate as much about a church body’s faith and how that faith defines our relationship with God’s earth as the manner in which a church buries its loved ones who have passed away.

This is a defining moment in a church’s common life. It is a defining moment in the culture of one’s faith. And culture, of course, is typically something that is invisible to us. We do things within a culture just because that’s the way they are done.

So in the comforting rituals of our visitations, funerals, and internments it is easy to miss elements that are not in synch with a whole Christian faith. The elements that revolve around how the body is treated and how we treat the land in which the body is buried are particularly out of synch.

For that reason, the whole faith church will handle funerals and burials in some ways that are different from mainstream practices.

These ways, I believe, are actually more consistent with key messages of the Bible. These ways would also contribute to a church culture that more fully commits itself to stewarding the physical elements of God’s earth (including our bodies) with respect and honor.

These would be the key burial practice principles of a whole faith church:

Unless there are unusual circumstances, the loved one’s body will not be embalmed.

The loved one’s body will be buried in such a way that the return of the body to dust will not be hindered. Coffins, if necessary, will be biodegradable and vaults will not be used.

The land in which loved ones are buried will be stewarded in ways that make it possible for as much natural life to prosper as possible and will, simultaneously, have creative human design and art that set those places apart for special meaning.

The whole faith church will minimally gather once a year as a community at that place to remember the dead, to celebrate their eventual resurrection, and to tend to the landscape there.

What will these practices affirm?

That indeed we are made of dust and to dust we will return.

That the death of a loved one is a momentous event for which the rest of our lives should stop.

That we come into this world with nothing and leave it with nothing.

That we are all equal before God.

That we are both made in the image of God and also part of Creation.

That it is right to treat every place on God’s earth, especially those with deep spiritual meaning, with deep respect and with the intention of promoting the life of God’s earth as much as possible.

That we as a community are committed to remembering our dead and the land in which they have been buried actively and incarnationally with times of togetherness, remembrance, and hands-on work.

That the resurrection will be miraculous beyond all measure.

For some readers this will all sound whacked-out radical and completely impractical.

Ironically, this approach to funerals and burial is actually far more the norm historically. And it’s being done in increasing numbers of places today.

It is called green burial.

Green burial has its own certification organization – the Green Burial Council – that defines what counts as green burial (and there are a spectrum of types) and what doesn’t. There are also examples of green burial grounds that demonstrate how green burial can be done in combination with the ongoing stewardship of a beautiful natural area. Here are a few examples: Honey Creek Woodlands in Georgia, Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, Green Meadow in Pennsylvania, and at Kokosing Nature Preserve at Kenyon College in Ohio.

My favorite story about this kind of burial comes from Dr. Billy Campbell, the founder of Memorial Ecosystems which launched the green burial movement here in the United States by opening Ramsey Creek Preserve.

Some of the rural neighbors of the property that became Ramsey Creek Preserve weren’t initially thrilled about having this “new” approach to burial close by. And one of the most vociferous opponents was a cantankerous older man known for his red suspenders. But as the years went by, he saw how Ramsey Creek Preserve’s approach to burial preserved the woods he loved and was a deeply meaningful way for people to bury their dead. He was won over.

A number of years later when his health was declining, he dictated that he wanted to be buried at the Ramsey Creek Preserve. And he was, wearing his signature red suspenders.

I’ll be writing more about this in posts to come. If you’re looking for one book to read to better understand how embalming works and to introduce you to diverse green burial options being practiced, then check out Grave Matters by Mark Harris. He also has a good website of the same name that includes this excerpt from the book describing a burial at the Ramsey Creek Preserve.

The title of this blog is, admittedly, a shameless attempt to grab your attention and, perhaps, cause you to smile at a time when the country’s mood is in turmoil. I believe there are lessons to be gained from the Cubs’ first World Series championship in 108 years that bear on our effort to live out a whole Christian faith as communities of believers. You’ll find ten below.

A vision and a plan are needed: The Cubs’ World Series victory did not happen by accident. Theo Epstein was hired as president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs in 2011. In 2012, the Cubs lost 101 games out of 162. In 2013, they were barely better as they lost 96 while winning just 66. But Epstein had a plan for getting the Cubs to the championship level just as he had taken the Boston Red Sox to two World Series victories. It unfolded over time. It involved change in almost every aspect of the Cubs’ organization. And it worked. What vision and plan are you part of for God’s desires for this world? Do you know what your gifts are? Have you figured out how to use them for maximum impact?

Recognize needs and seize opportunities: Plans can only go so far. There are times when you must adapt, recognize critical moments, and act decisively to pursue opportunities you didn’t expect. Recognizing their need for better relief pitching in middle of this season, the Cubs acquired pitcher Mike Montgomery (and another pitcher) from Seattle on July 20 this year. Five days later the Cubs traded four good prospects to the Yankees for the hardest throwing pitcher in baseball – relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman. Both Montgomery and Chapman played key roles in their regular season and playoff success. In fact, Montgomery secured the final out in Game 7. God gives us agency and free will to make smart choices and to adjust to changes in life. We should be on our toes and not on autopilot with the assumption that God will take care of everything.

Work collaboratively and joyfully: Epstein is brilliant. But he hired people into the organization who were also smart and good at their particular functions, whether that be scouting or marketing. And from all accounts, he let them do their jobs, working with them in collaborative ways. One of the reasons the Cubs were so fun to watch, too, was the genuine fun and friendly bonds the players seemed to enjoy together. Maddon encouraged them to keep loose. You and I need each other and other Christians in whatever circumstances we’re in to be most effective for God. These should be relationships of mutual respect and cooperation. And there should be some lightness and joy.

Expect a crooked path to success: The Cubs didn’t go 162-0 in the regular season this year. At one point in the season, they actually began to sputter. During the National League Championship Series, they fell behind the Dodgers. They were down 3-1 in the World Series to the Indians. They lost their 6-3 lead in Game 7 in the bottom of the eighth inning. Their spirits were nearly crushed. Some players were even crying during the rain delay before the 10th inning bregan. Life dishes out pain and exposes one’s failings. Expect it. Persevere through it.

Failure both teaches and must be forgotten: By the time Cubs’ second baseman Javier Baez came up in the 5th inning of Game 7, my son and I were sure he was going to make another out swinging at pitches miles from the strike zone. He had been 4-for-26 at that point and was, uncharacteristically, making errors in the field. He was facing Corey Kluber, the Indians’ best pitcher. What did he do? He rocked a pitch to center field for a home run. Kluber was then removed from the game. From what the broadcasters said, Cubs coaches had been working with Baez on hitting technique and encouraging him to not try to pull every pitch. It worked. Baez evidently listened. And he had the strength of mind to put his failures behind him, stay composed, and perform at the peak of his abilities in the moment he was in.

Use strengths, work around weaknesses: From about 2012, John Lester, the Cubs’ premier starting pitcher, for some psychological reason, began to lose all ability to throw the ball to any of the bases whether to hold a runner on or to throw a runner out on a ground ball or bunt. This is a fundamental part of being a pitcher, much less a baseball player, and yet he couldn’t do it. Jason Heyward was signed to a huge $184 million, eight-year contract with the expectation that he would be a foundational, complete player for the Cubs. But during the regular season, he ended up batting an anemic .230. And when crunch time came in the World Series he managed only a miserable .150. Yet, both Lester and Heyward made huge impacts as the Cubs found ways to use them. Lester pitched crucial innings. Heyward played great defense in the outfield and gave a talk during the rain delay after the ninth inning that calmed his teammates and helped them come out and win in the seventh game in the 10th inning under tremendous pressure. People around you don’t have to be perfect to be valuable in their role. Neither do you.

Leaders will make mistakes: By the seventh game of the World Series, Joe Maddon’s calm demeanor and relaxed approach to his leadership that we had seen throughout the season had frayed. You could see him grimacing when players made mistakes. He made some pitching moves that were questioned at the time they were made and proved to be bad ones. But in baseball and in the life of a church, even the best of leaders are not perfect. And we shouldn’t expect them to be.

Money helps: According to Spotrac, the Cubs had the fifth highest payroll in Major League Baseball at just over $186 million. Cleveland was at 21st with almost $115 million. Adequate and even generous funding of a church or ministry by people or organizations which have been blessed financially is, similarly, very important.

Cherish shared bonds over time: A friend of mine passed away far too early in his life a few years ago. He was a huge Cubs fan, even when he moved to New Mexico. I remember us having heated (but friendly) arguments about the relative strengths of the Cubs versus the White Sox when we were kids on the sidewalk of our Chicago neighborhood sidewalk on summer days. I found myself thinking often of him during the World Series. I know his family cried upon the Cubs’ victory in large part because they wished they could have shared it with him. I heard of a Cubs’ fan listening to Game 7 at the side of his father’s grave to honor their common connection to the Cubs. All of this is a small taste of what bonds between Christian family members and even between just members should be and can be. Does your church have that shared bond? Do you and others you know have that shared excitement and passion around your mission that is in continuity with past centuries of disciples?

Being lovable isn’t the point: For decades there was an aura of security and comfort around the Cubs. Wrigley Field was a great place to go and enjoy the sunshine and the company of friends. The baseball being played was like background music and was, to many, of no real consequence. People still showed up. There was even a certain comfort in their perennial problems. But playing baseball, like any sport, is ultimately about striving to win. Only if you’re doing everything possible to do so are you really playing the game. Likewise, a Christian life shouldn’t be defined only by being lovable and comforting and looking forward to peace and heaven when we die. Our eternal lives are already under way. The way of life we are part of is about taking on challenges in this world. There is a call to action inherent in being a follower of Jesus. Like the Cubs of 2016, we should be a goodhearted group of people who also are committed down to our very bones to win at the game we’re in. For Christians that means using our energy and abilities to live out God’s goodness and to struggle against evil in this world.

In the last blog post, I asked this question – when will preserving and renewing God’s earth be part and parcel of what it means to live a Christian life?

Here’s my answer – that will happen when churches have a whole faith woven into their worship, theology, and culture.

This is a radical thing to propose.

Many Christians would flatly deny that caring for God’s earth is an essential part of being Christian. Others would give lip service to that ideal while recoiling from any call to tangible action that might inconvenience them, much less challenge them.

You will find Christians, of course, who care deeply for God’s earth. You are likely one of those already. You live in thoughtful, self-sacrificing ways outside of church. You may even lead or support activities in your church – like recycling or improving energy efficiency – that move the church toward collectively being more responsible in its stewardship of God’s earth.

These are all good and worthy of honor. That has probably not always been easy in your church community.

But if we look with eyes wide open at the state of God’s earth around the world and the lack of concerted action by churches and Christians in addressing the earth’s desecration, then it is painfully clear that what is being done is not enough.

Earth stewardship too often is one of a number of activities that are in orbit around the core life and culture of a church. In no fundamental way is a loving concern for the life of God’s earth integrated into a church’s DNA.

It is like a mother and father who take their family on a two-week summer vacation trip each year but otherwise neglect their children and rely on nannies and school activities for engaging their kids. For years the parents are able to pursue their professions, interests, and hobbies unhindered. They are dramatically successful and accomplished in every way. But they eventually reap what they have sown. Their kids have troubled adolescent years. Later, to the parents’ surprise, the children turn out to be selfish and uninterested in visiting the nursing home where the parents end up, alone and full of regrets.

What those parents needed to do was not plan even more special vacations or even better birthday parties. They needed a whole different value system that permeated the way they lived and the way they interacted with their children every day and every moment.

Similarly, what church communities need is an awareness deep in their culture and worship that the salvation God ultimately offers is the healing of all Creation. They also need an urgent, church-wide commitment to protecting and healing God’s earth as part of their membership’s united efforts to help make God’s will be done.

Can this completely happen in existing churches? I’d like to think so, but I don’t know.

Established institutions have a hard time changing. It is difficult for all of us imbedded in our culture to distinguish what about our values is cultural and what is the fruit of hearts and minds fixed on God. It will be much easier and instinctive for denominations, theologians, pastors, and long-time believers to dismiss these concerns as secondary or even heretical based on long-standing theologies.

For those reasons, I can’t help but believe it is time for new wineskins.

It is time for new whole faith churches.

These wouldn’t be churches for everyone. They would be, however, cherished church homes for people who have been spiritual nomads to this point. They would be homes for people who love God so much they find it hard to worship when they can hear the cries of people and the non-human life of this world who are falling, metaphorically, into a pit that we ourselves have helped dig. They would be seeds of larger change as well.

I write all this with trepidation. Yet, I see no other way.

Having and living out a whole faith ultimately depend on our willingness to open our hearts. Are we ready to have our convictions reshaped by God, even those convictions that have grown out of our culture and are deeply rooted in our emotions?

We tend to pick and choose where God’s message applies and where it doesn’t. When it applies to something we intuitively care deeply about, we see things in intense blacks and whites. When it applies to something we don’t care deeply about because of our culture or self-interest, we ignore it or rationalize how we and our community are acting toward it.

Case in point – abortion.

The controversy over the Planned Parenthood videos has again brought abortion into the forefront. It has also again revealed how selective people can be in applying core ethical concerns. Pro-choice supporters, many of whom would rail against the mistreatment of minorities and the polluting of rivers, don’t want to squarely face the horror of the violence done against a baby in a womb. The ability of Planned Parenthood officials and their supporters to use abstract, technical language to talk around this reality is deeply disturbing.

But far too many Christians who are outraged by the Planned Parenthood videos and by abortion in general, ignore and even acquiesce to daily violence against poor, vulnerable communities and against God’s earth. In fact, many of the same people who are speaking against abortion in shrill voices are just as likely to be comfortable with and even to advance ways of using God’s earth that systematically cause suffering to people and vulnerable living beings.

Did you know that a child’s lungs begin to develop in the womb but are not fully developed until they turn eight years old? In what way is it right to desire to protect that child’s life and lungs in the womb but not when they are out of the womb and vulnerable to pollution?

Selectivity in where we advocate for love and compassion and where we don’t is like a tree that bears beautiful fruit on some branches but rotten, worm-filled, poisonous fruit on others.

To make this point, I want to share a list of ten ways in which abortion shares common ground with the violence done against Creation. I am not suggesting they are exactly morally equivalent and I recognize that I am ignoring many nuances. Nevertheless, I believe the extensive common ground should give us pause and compel us to desire to live out whole lives of whole faith.

The actual acts are violent and cruel: The references to the “crunchiness” of abortion and the awful images shown on signs at protests around abortion clinics jerk us out of an anesthetized calm and into the reality of the violence of abortion. What chance do soft skin and tissue have against cold, hard steel? A number of years ago, the culture critic and avowed atheist, Camille Paglia faced that reality directly when she wrote: “Hence I have always frankly admitted that abortion is murder, the extermination of the powerless by the powerful. Liberals for the most part have shrunk from facing the ethical consequences of their embrace of abortion, which results in the annihilation of concrete individuals and not just clumps of insensate tissue.”

For their part, confined animal feed operations sounds reasonable and antiseptic until you think about the experience of the animals and the lagoons of waste outside. And what about slaughterhouses where the speed of the killing line is debilitating to the workers and cruel to the animals? Or the testing of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals on animals or the ripping up of prairies with their rich plant and animal life to be farmed for ethanol and animal feed? Or mountains being leveled and forests cleared in the Appalachians with dire impacts on surrounding communities, forests, and streams?

A variety of abstract, intellectual arguments are often given by elite proponents to justify the violence being done: Here’s what Camille Paglia used for her justification for defending abortion: “The state in my view has no authority whatever to intervene in the biological processes of any woman’s body, which nature has implanted there before birth and hence before that woman’s entrance into society and citizenship.” In other words, nature unfairly failed to give women a say in the fact that they must be ones to bear babies so a woman is justified in having a child killed in her womb. Likewise, the promoters of commodity farming cry out that we must feed the world. This zealous, seemingly selfless mission is used to justify the worst features of commodity farming that result in dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, nitrates in drinking water, the killing of soil life, and factory farms.

The inherent value of that life is denied either explicitly or implicitly: Isn’t it interesting that people justify abortion and destruction and violence to God’s world because the unborn child and the cedar waxwing and the rare plant do not have the same capabilities as an adult human? Yes, we must make distinctions, but the full value and worth of a living thing do not ultimately come from a living thing’s capabilities. They come from the fact that they are in some mysterious way God’s.

We don’t want to be confronted with the inherent violence and destruction of those acts, and the people carrying out the acts don’t want the world to see the full reality of them: Let’s face it. We avert our gaze from images of aborted babies and don’t want to look at videos of farm animals being abused. And people carrying out the acts typically want to make exposure to those realities and to the truth behind what is being done difficult. A great example has been the passing of “ag gag” laws which prohibit undercover investigations of farming operations (livestock operations, in particular) because undercover operations resulted in disturbing information and videos about how animals were actually being treated. These remind me of Herod imprisoning John because he called Herod to task for divorcing his wife and then marrying his brother’s wife.

Freedom and personal rights trump all other values: The right to do what one wants with what is one’s own (whether it be one’s body or one’s property) is asserted as the ultimate value by abortion rights advocates and by many people on the right side of the political spectrum. They both resent any restriction on what they do with their body, their land, their animals, and even their employees. Assertions of freedom and personal rights are, however, not really a justification of what is done. Instead they are a force field that negates the right of anyone else to make ethical judgments about what is done with those rights or to intervene on behalf of society’s common values.

It’s all too easy to move on as if the violence never happened: We so easily avoid the ghosts. Following violence there is a peace of sorts, and unless you use a moral imagination, the life that was or could have been fades quickly away as if it never was. And making the effort to hold onto the memory of a place that had been full of life or what the unborn child could have become takes moral energy and willingness to go into raw emotions that few of us want to deal with. One of the ways that the cross is so unusual as a symbol of faith is that it forces us to pay attention to the moment of violence and sacrifice in the story of Jesus and God. Perhaps it should even cultivate in us a heart that will not turn away from suffering and violence?

The acceptance of violence by the powerful against powerless life in particular cases contributes to a desensitization to other forms of violence in our world: I have heard the argument that routine abortion desensitizes us to a devaluing of life in general. That rings true. And how animals are raised, transported, and slaughtered in many cases around the country does, in my opinion, the same thing. It is an interesting and disturbing fact that many psychopaths first revealed their dangerous tendencies by torturing and killing animals. A cruel spirit that cannot empathize with the weak and vulnerable will show that cruelty to people and animals alike over time.

Science continues to give us an expanded view of the complexity of life even as applied science grows in its ability to carry out violence against life ever more surgically and effectively: We now know so much more about the life of the unborn child and its rapid development than we used to. Twins in the womb, for example, play with each other. Babies in the womb know when they are being sung to and when there is just background music. We know ever more about the intelligence and emotional life of many animals and other life as well. Did you know that octopi have 130 billion neurons and humans about 100 billion (and the majority of neurons of an octopus are in its arms)? We are also learning more about the complex life of soils and the dynamic interaction between soil life and plant life.

When this expanding world of scientific knowledge collides with our interests and desires, however, we tune it out. And when we learn in the Planned Parenthood video that there are ways to extract the body of a pre-birth baby intact after it has been killed so that its organs can be removed for donation, we are witnessing one of the fruits of applied science in an ever more sophisticated form. Similarly, applied science is offering us ever more sophisticated ways to get what we want out of natural life at tremendous cost. Sixty to 80 percent of pigs (as well as many cattle and turkeys) raised in the U.S. today are given ractopamine, a growth-enhancing drug, that many countries ban. It’s a beautiful thing if all you value is enhancing your profits by getting more poundage of pig for your dollar. But what about the pigs? This article notes that an FDA report has found that the drug can result in “respiratory disorders, hoof disorders, bloat, abnormal lameness and leg disorders, hyperactivity, stiffness, aggression, stress, recumbency (inability to get up) and death.” Human ingenuity combined with deadened hearts magnifies horror in this world.

The law tends to favor the powerful over the powerless. The baby in its womb.  A pig in a factory farm. An endangered species being poached or its habitat gradually cut up. A stream being filled with waste and toxic chemicals. None of them can vote or make political contributions. They cannot file briefs in court. They cannot speak. The law and politics do not serve them as well as they serve the larger forces in society that do vote, do make political contributions, can speak, and directly benefit from the way the system works today. The forces of the powerful have the perpetual advantage in the world of law.

A purely economic way of looking at life decisions and how our world works readily justifies abortion and many abuses of nature. It’s hard to make an economic case for having a child. And it’s even harder to make if you’re just barely getting by and if your family’s life is already hard and even dysfunctional. There’s a parallel there with how we tend to look at a field or a population of fish.  From a purely economic view, it’s hard to justify not transfroming them into things of use to people. Ironically, abortion clinics contribute to our GNP as do industrial agriculture and factory farms and extractive industriesy that deplete places and leave behind toxic legacies. Economic practicality has an inherently tension-filled relationship with Christian values. In other words, faith in the invisible hand inevitably will conflict with faith in our invisible God.

 

I’ve long been trying to understand what holds all of these commonalities together. A recent sermon I heard helped me do that. Amanda Rosengren, the associate pastor at the Church of the Redeemer we’ve recently begun attending, preached on the story of David and Bathsheba that you can find in 2 Samuel 11-12.

Amanda pointed out that the story of David and Bathsheba that prompts Nathan to confront David and the parable-like story that Nathan tells David to awaken his heart are both ultimately about the powerful abusing the powerless. The victims of the powerful – Bathsheba, Uriah, the poor man’s family in the story Nathan tells, and the lamb in that story – are profoundly vulnerable to the powerful. They are especially vulnerable to the powerful who feel entitled to use that power for their own benefit.

“Power, like money, is not inherently good or bad, it all depends on how it is used,” said Amanda. “In order to use rather than abuse the power we have, we first need to recognize it we need to “know our own strength.” Do we use the power we have to listen to those who lack it, or do we pay attention only to the powerful or those like us? After we listen, do we, like the prophet Nathan, use our power to speak on behalf of those who lack it, and to exert influence for the cause of justice for those who have been trampled upon? Do we have compassion for those who are victims, who are powerless, or do we blame them for their lack of power, or simply ignore them because we can? Do we use what we have been given to build up the community, or only for ourselves and what we want? Do you know your own strength?”

One of the tragedies of living in this broken world is that the complicated contexts people find themselves in can make the use of our power in a bad way seemingly the best option of many bad options. Can we live completely in loving ways without ever causing harm to others and other vulnerable living things? That is very hard. Even as we advocate for compassion and love, we must also have compassion and love for those who feel forced by reality to harm vulnerable life. And, yes, there are nuances.

Yet, we should be strong voices for the compassionate and thoughtful use of our individual and collective power. In all contexts. This means we must accept limits to ourselves and our desires for power and glory and wealth.

It is time for coherent, whole thinking and ethics across all political leanings in how we deal with all life. And whole thinking and whole ethics do not start from intellect and argument. They start from the heart. If we open our hearts to God through Jesus, our hearts will be transformed, every corner of them. Out of those transformed hearts will come a desire to use our strength and creativity for good and to avoid using it in ways that harm the vulnerable.

How can we help but be pro-life for all of life?

If you want to read a challenging and inspiring book, pick up The Hole in the Gospel by Richard Stearns.

In the book, Stearns shares how he was enjoying a successful corporate career when a number of things happened that led him to believe that God was calling him to step out of his comfort zone to become the president of World Vision, the Christian humanitarian aid organization.

And he wasn’t sure he wanted to answer that call.

This brought to a head two pressing questions in his life. What was the Christian faith all about? And was he willing to accept a call from God that would require him to accept God’s will and purpose even if they differed from his own?

The “hole” in the Gospel that the book’s title refers to is the tendency among Christians to make Jesus’ message all about getting our bus ticket punched for the right destination in the next life and to ignore God’s desire to advance his kingdom in this world.

hole-in-gospel book cover image

This is well worth reading.

Here’s how Stearns puts it:

“In our evangelistic efforts to make the good news accessible and simple to understand, we seem to have boiled it down to a kind of “fire insurance” that one can buy. Then, once the policy is in place, the sinner can go back to whatever life he was living – of wealth and success, or of poverty and suffering. As long as the policy is in the drawer, the other things don’t matter much. We’ve got our “ticket” to the next life.”

A few lines later, Stearns talks more of the whole gospel.

“The kingdom of God, which Christ said is “within you” (Luke 17:21 NKJV), was intended to change and challenge everything in our fallen world in the here and now. It was not meant to be a way to leave the world but rather the means to actually redeem it. Yes, it first requires that we repent of our own sinfulness and totally surrender our individual lives to follow Christ, but then we are also commanded to go into the world – to bear fruit by lifting up the poor and marginalized, challenging injustice wherever we find it, rejecting the worldly values found within every culture, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.”

And he ultimately did accept what he perceived to be the call of God to pursue the redemption of the world by becoming the President of World Vision. He did this despite the fact that he was enjoying a stable, satisfying, well-compensated professional life as the CEO of Lenox and despite the fact that he felt unqualified. He took a leap of faith.

I call attention to Stearns and his story because his articulation of the Gospel is powerful and connects with the ideas of a whole faith that this blog is exploring. The Gospel is a dynamic, life-changing force that begins our eternal and blessed life right now and in this world.

I also call attention to Stearns because I’m convinced that we need to create an international Christian organization as broad and large as World Vision dedicated to preserving and mending God’s earth which we have stood by and alllowed to be defaced and destroyed for too long.

You might know World Vision through its child sponsorship system, which allows people to sponsor children in poor communities around the world. That sponsorship funding then helps World Vision serve the communities in which those children live.

It serves communities in a wide variety of ways – from offering medical services and emergency aid to helping train community members in agriculture and protecting children from child trafficking, abuse, and neglect.

The scale of World Vision International is astonishing. World Vision International serves nearly 100 countries. It has 45,000 staff. Its revenues in 2013 reached $2.67 billion.

By contrast, the largest Christian international organization that I know of is A Rocha, which carries out education, research, and conservation projects. Its income in 2013 was $5.4 million.

How can we as Christians not be responding to problems of global environmental degradation at the scale of those problems?

World Vision is an inspiration. It brings together the resources and energies of thousands of churches and millions of Christians into one organization that can tackle poverty at a wide scale while working collaboratively at the local community level.

It’s time for a Christian organization to do the same thing for God’s earth. We need to bring our resources to bear on the forces depleting and disrupting God’s world at the scale of those forces.

And in light of the scale and moral urgency of the calamity unfolding in front of us, that organization needs to be as large as World Vision. Maybe larger.

This leads me to the painful conviction that right now the best use of the majority of our energies and resources is not in efforts to awaken local churches to a whole faith.

I suspect I’ve not been alone in long assuming a bottom-up approach was the way to go. I’ve dreamed that if enough churches came to care about God’s earth as part of a whole faith that this would lead eventually to changes in the lives and actions of individuals Christians. This, in turn, would them to bring about changes in their local communities. And this would eventually, gradually lead to changes to the culture and policies of their nations.

But the reality of the situation has come home to me. Even if that sequence would be assured of happening, it won’t happen fast enough nor at the right scale nor with the urgency and effectiveness that is needed.

Certainly, churches should preach and teach a whole faith that includes God’s Creation. I long to see a whole faith flourish at the local church level. I want to help that happen.

What I have seen, however, is that a whole faith typically faces considerable resistance, polite disinterest, or downright apathy. And that’s in the churches where the accepted doctrine would even allow you to have a conversation about the intrinsic value of the earth to God.

Those who do care tend to find themselves in Creation Care committees that do praiseworthy activities but have a hard time inspiring the whole congregation to act in concerted, coordinated ways and to create new habits of living. There are gatekeepers. There is cultural resistance. It’s perceived to be too radical and too costly.

And even if some churches began to move in those directions, individual churches just aren’t be able to deal systematically with the systematic ways God’s Creation is being violently diminished.

Rivers and coral reefs are dying. Creatures are going extinct. Too often the way we raise food mines the wealth of God’s world and doesn’t regenerate it. The world’s climate is changing. People, our neighbors in God’s eyes, are suffering and losing much because of these trends.  It will only get worse if these trends continue unabated.

Aralship2  photo

A ship left high and dry in the former Aral Sea (near Aral, Kazakhstan) that used to be the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world. Read about its slow death and see striking aerial images of the shrinkage since 2000 here.

Patient work at the level of local church is just not enough. Being content with recycling and using more energy-efficient light bulbs (all good things, of course) is like having a satisfied feeling in your heart after throwing a glass of cool water on a roaring fire that is engulfing a neighbor’s house.

And the limited number of Christians who care about God’s earth need to be strategic in where they use their limited time and resources.

It’s time for Christians to push themselves to be leaders in preserving and mending God’s world for God’s sake, for our neighbors’ sake, and for the sake of the diversity of life around us.

It’s time for Christians to bring all of their dynamism, compassion, innovation, and willingness to sacrifice for what is good to bear.

It’s time for the Church as a unified body of Spirit-filled communities to pool its resources in a new organizational arm that focuses on one thing – protecting and mending God’s earth – and to do so with all of the urgency, creativity, and prophetic passion God’s spirit can provide.

What exactly would this international organization do? What would make it uniquely Christian and uniquely valuable? And where would the money come from?

With fear and trembling, I’ll give my best answers to those questions in my next post.