A Creation Justice Covenant

This summer we read Jim Antal’s, Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change, at Greensboro United Church of Christ. We gathered for five weeks to discuss our planet and our responsibility to care for it. The experience was rich and sobering. We took account of the ways we have already accepted the task identified by Thomas Berry “. . .to be a more benign presence” on our planet. We also concluded that there was more for us to do. The statement below is a work in progress. If you have feedback that would make it more useful, please share. We came out of our summer study with a deep sense of urgency. Yes, we could have and should have done more sooner. We have not done many of those things. Therefore, what we want for this document to help us do is, in the words of Wendall Berry, to “make the world a better piece of ground?”
We are calling it a creation justice covenant. Creation, because we believe that life is God’s gift to us all. Justice, because we know harm done to our planet impacts the most those least able to cope with such harm. Covenant, because this crisis is serious enough for us to solemnly and intentionally promise to do something about it.

A working document
Greensboro United Church of Christ
Creation Justice Covenant

Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?  Ezekiel 34:18-19

Because creation is a gift from God entrusted to our care and we want to safeguard that gift for future generations,

Because we have begun to see the value of living and acting in ways that improve the health of our planet and are ready to exercise vision instead of convenience,

Because we know that the burden of a degraded planet falls heaviest on those who are least able to respond to such changes,

Because we know that we only have one planet on which to live,

And Because the UCC General Synod, Vermont Conference, and other faith communities have acknowledged the crisis of climate change,

We, the Greensboro United Church of Christ, recognizing that the world is in a moral and environmental crisis, commit ourselves to learning and discovering new ways to improve the health of our planet, acting with hopeful perseverance in order to stop the destruction and foster rejuvenation in our hearts and in our world. Acting as disciples of social justice, we commit to applying what we learn in the life we share together as a congregation. This commitment is both a testimony to our trust in God and a witness to how we hear God calling us to be together as a community of faith.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. Revelation 21:3


Responsible Teaching about Sex

An edited versions of this post appeared in the February 19 edition of the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

We should be able to reasonably expect our public school educators to respond to the questions and concerns of parents in a timely, professional and helpful way while never compromising the central task of providing the fullest and best education possible to our children. Their job is a difficult one in a county as broad and diverse as Knox County.  Nonetheless, parents ought to always be seen as vital participants in the education process. In the same manner, parents ought to act with due appreciation for the vital task we ask our school system to accomplish each day.

There are many reasons why parents choose our public schools to provide the education of their children. Some parents do not have a choice. Public schools are the only schools financially within their reach. Some parents choose public schools because they want their children to attend the same schools that they attended. Other parents choose public schools because they understand that our nation’s strength lies in a quality education for all students and that their participation in our public schools adds to the quality and richness of that education as well as the strength of our nation.  Still other parents choose public education for their children because neither the narrow sectarianism of the church school nor the exclusivity of the private academy satisfies their understanding of what education ought to be in a democratic society.  Choosing to send ones children to public school should never be seen as an opting out or unwillingness to participate in the vitally important task of education.  School administrators ought to expect parent participation and parents ought to expect to participate.

The recent events at Hardin Valley Academy around a Planned Parenthood presentation might have been less disturbing and frustrating if more and better communication had occurred. Unfortunately, that did not happen.  The topic was a sensitive one about which parents obviously had strong feelings. The failure to adequately inform parents about their options regarding this class presentation was most unfortunate as was the administrations tardiness in responding to the parent’s legitimate inquiry.

Interestingly, figures recently released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that the birth rate among teenagers in the United States is down significantly. In fact, the birth rate among girls ages 10-14 in 2009 was lower than it had ever been since data began being collected in 1940. At the same time, the number of births among girls ages 10-14 in 2009 had not been so low since 1950.  The birth rate and the number of births among older teens also decreased appreciably.

Ignorance does not serve us well. Education does work. To be certain, most parents would prefer for their children to be in a committed marriage relationship before becoming sexually active. However, not all young people will wait until they are in such a relationship. For those who chose not to wait, real facts and accurate information are of vital importance if we are to keep teen birth rate numbers in decline.  Failing to adequately educate our children can only result in an increase in unwanted pregnancies and an increase in the number of abortions among teens.  Let’s talk more, communicate better and share information with our children in age appropriate ways so that all of our children can be adults before they start having children of their own.

Bad Weather or God’s Punishment?

Why is that every time something bad happens there always seems to be a preacher around to give God the credit for whatever disaster or tragedy that has occurred? John Hagee was one that let us know that Hurricane Katrina was punishment for the wickedness of New Orleans. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson concurred that the attacks of September 11, 2001 were God’s judgment on a sinful nation. Last week, John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, once again saw the judgment of God in a tornado that hit downtown Minneapolis.

Who was God’s target this time? The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) was meeting at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Why did Piper assume that the tornado was intended for them? They were discussing sex — homosexuality to be exact. Piper’s understanding of God and homosexuality led him to the conclusion that God sent the tornado “as a gentle but firm” warning to the ELCA to terminate the discussion.

I have read the Bible and I just don’t get it. The Bible talks about sex, and there are even some passages that refer to homosexual behavior; but it is not in proportion to all the disasters and tragedies that preachers blame on it. In contrast, the Scriptures are filled with teachings about the poor and how they are treated. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus begins his preaching ministry by declaring that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor.

If God were a God that used disaster and tragedy to chastise God’s creation in this fashion, then one would think that individuals and groups that create and perpetuate poverty, along with those who exploit and demean the poor, would be constant targets for such vengeful acts. Such does not appear to be the case, at least according to the preachers who divine such things. Did you hear any of them declaring the banking collapse as God’s punishment for a greedy nation? Maybe some did, and I missed it. If they did, then at least they were being more consistent with scripture. In the Bible, greed seems to bother God much more than homosexuality. In fact, the list of moral and ethical imperatives that receive more ink in the teachings of Jesus than homosexuality is a long one.

Why do we do this to God? I mean, why do we turn the hand of God into an instrument of terrorist threat? You displease God and God will wallop you! How can you fall intimately and passionately in love with a God that is liable to crush you when you mess up? Why would the same God who took on flesh and dwelt among us in order to demonstrate God’s sacrificial love for us, and amazing grace to us, turn around and inflict pain and suffering upon us?

I try to assume that preachers who label devastation and disease as punishment from God mean well. Sometimes I wonder, though, if such characterizations of God only serve to rally their core of constituents. When, in their interpretation of events, small groups of easily picked-on minorities always seem to be the recipients of God’s punishment, I wonder if they are merely giving us permission in a not so subtle way to keep those who are different from us at arms length.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that God can do anything that God chooses to do. I also believe that God does amazing things in the lives of sinners and saints. I just have an increasingly difficult time believing that God uses God’s power to hurt, harm or even kill people. Jesus came to love us, to heal us and to reconcile our broken lives with the One who created us. When we turn away from the offer of that love, we break God’s heart. Yet, God continues to love us, seek us and reach for us even when we turn and run from God. When God wanted to do the very most that God could do to show God’s love for us, God did not send a tornado, or a hurricane, or a terrorist hi-jacked plane. No, when God wanted to love us like we have never been loved, God sent his Son.

May you know that love today and always.

Stay Healthy? Stay Married!

Interesting report from CNN on research that would seem to indicate that marriage is good for your health. While being widowed or divorced is not. With half of all marriages in the U.S. ending in divorce, I wonder what the implications of these studies are for health care in our country.

Divorce is on the rise. Obesity is on the rise. Why are we such unhealthy people says the man who ate burger bites and onion straws for lunch today?

As for the research, I think there is some truth there. My wife is faithful in making sure that I keep appointments with doctors, dentists and such. Every month or so, she asks me if I have started exercising again. Never mind that the answer to her question is painfully obvious just from looking. Spouses can be good monitors of each other’s health and fitness.

Nolle prosequi

There was a letter in the News-Sentinel this week that caught my attention. It was written in response to a previous letter, which may well have been written in response to a previous letter, which could very well have been written in response to a previous letter. Such letters have been appearing in newspapers, especially East Tennessee newspapers, at least since July 13, 1925. That date marks the beginning of the trial of John Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee.

Scopes lost that trial and was found guilty of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act which prohibited the teaching of evolution. However, the conviction was overturned in the Tennessee Supreme Court. The reversal came not because the Supreme Court gave merit to the reasons presented for the appeal, but because of a technicality. The judge in Dayton had sentenced Scopes to pay a fine of $100.00. At that time, judges in Tennessee could not impose fines of over $50.00. Juries had to do the imposing if the fine was over $50.00.

Even though the Justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court agreed with the lower court’s decision, and only overturned it because of the technicality, Chief Justice, Grafton Green, recommended that the case be dropped as it was not in the State’s interest to pursue further prosecution.

For the most part, Justice Green’s advice has been ignored through the years as the issue has continued to be debated in courtrooms, newspapers and throughout the court of public opinion. At times, the debate has risen to great heights and employed the expansive, technical vocabulary of both science and theology. Unfortunately, the basic tenor of the argument all too often seems to resemble a playground dispute rather than a learned debate. I am right, you are wrong. I am intelligent, you are superstitious. I am holy, you are godless. I am educated, you are backward. I am righteous, you are hell-bound. The debate continues. As to whether or not it is a helpful debate, well, that is debatable.

The question seems to get the most muddled when those involved in the conversation seek to address concerns beyond their fields of expertise. Namely, theologians try to be scientists and scientists try to be theologians. Science tends to be empirical. It collects data through experimentation and observation in order to formulate and test a hypothesis. Theology is an effort to speak about God. God rarely fits into the categories and methods of science. While science and theology share common concerns at various points, particularly around the ethical and moral dimensions of new discoveries and innovations, they each have their own unique task. Science seeks to understand life and how its many parts relate to one another. Theology seeks to understand the meaning of life and its ethical implications in light of our relationship with God.

Theologians in general, and those who would speak on behalf of the church in particular, would do well to exercise restraint in scientific matters. The church’s record is not so good in this area. In 1633, Galileo who was found to be suspect of heresy, was imprisoned and banned from publishing any of his work. His crime was that he believed that the earth rotated around the sun rather than the sun around the earth, as the church taught. In 1992, Pope John Paul II, conceded that the earth was indeed not stationary. In the 1800s, Church people in the southern United States took great pains to justify the peculiar institution of slavery based on their belief that persons of African decent were inferior mentally, socially and perhaps worst of all in the eyes of God. In 1995, 150 years after a founding rooted in the perpetuation of slavery, the Southern Baptist Convention repented of its wrongdoing and asked for forgiveness. To be certain there have been other times and places throughout history when religious people have arrived at conclusions that lacked any factual basis. That has not kept them from acting and speaking as if their version of the truth was, in fact, the accurate and correct one.

The tragedy of such errors is that they are unnecessary, at least from a theological perspective. If God is God, maker and creator of all that we can see and know, there is no discoverable or observable truth that can contradict God. God needs little from God’s creation in the way of defense or bolstering. No truth that is, in fact, truth can diminish God, as such truth only has its existence within the creative activity of God. Those who believe in the one who is truth embodied ought to celebrate truth wherever and whenever it is found.

There are questions each of us ask about our lives that our belief in and understanding of God can help us answer. What is right and what is wrong? How responsible am I for meeting the needs of other people? What is really important in life? What is my purpose? Can I be forgiven for my mistakes? Do I matter in this world? Do I matter to God? In fact, some of these sorts of questions are difficult if not impossible to answer without an understanding of God and God’s claims on our lives. Suffice it to say that there are some questions that arise out of our life together that science is better equipped to answer, and some that are better suited for theological answers.

Which matters most to God; what we think about how the earth was created, or how we treat the earth? The prophet Isaiah sees a vision of:
The earth that is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder, the earth is violently shaken. The earth staggers like a drunkard, it sways like a hut; its transgressions lie heavy upon it, and it falls, and will not rise again. (Isaiah 24:19-20).
Isaiah speaks these words in response to a crisis. The poor and needy are being mistreated. Political and religious leaders are failing in responsibilities. People are worshipping false gods. While such actions may not seem to pose a threat to the welfare of the planet, Isaiah understands that there is a connection between morals and mountains, between ethics and earth. Human sin strikes at the heart of God’s creation. The prophet’s words, spoken centuries ago, take on a troubling new meaning as we have increased our capacity to break, tear and shake God’s creation.

What does it matter who created the earth if we treat it like it is just another easily replaceable item that we can pick up at the grocery store? Does God care whether or not we give God credit for creating the earth, if we fail to see in it the sacred wonder of God’s handiwork? Does it matter to God that we acknowledge God’s creative activity if, by the way we live our lives, we are undoing God’s creation?