Holy ground


Text: Romans 8:18-25

I went to visit my friends, Jesse Quam and Grace Davenport, in their beautiful home in the mountains of North Carolina. Brian and I have been friends with Jesse since we were teenagers. We’ve kept in contact for twenty years. Now, they live in Black Mountain, outside of Asheville, where the ground almost looked fluid. As we drove, it seemed to roll around us, changing different shapes as we moved along the roads, keeping us in constant wonder.

It was a good time for us to take a vacation, but a terrible time for our friends. Grace was nine months pregnant and weighed down by her ample belly. We stayed in a cabin, tried to respect their space, while accepting any invitation to catch up.

While we were there, we learned more about Jesse’s work as a therapist, counseling teenagers in a wilderness setting. It’s a high burnout profession, but he’s been doing it for years. Actually, for over a decade now. He watches his friends come and go, but he keeps working with confused teenagers.

Even though Jesse works with the adolescent who’s in trouble, as most good therapists do, Jesse doesn’t just look at that one member of the family. He looks at their environment. He looks at the whole family, how it’s working and not working. How much the parents are away from the home. He wants to know if the teenager is in a context where he or she can grow. He’s concerned about the child’s attachment.

He says, “You can have a beautiful rose, but if it’s stuck down in the basement, it’ll die. It needs to be in a healthy environment to thrive.” And he believes that all teenagers, all people, are the same way. We need healthy environments to thrive.

Jesse’s use of the word “environment” is intentional. Because he’s not just talking about parents and the siblings, he believes that the natural environment has an important effect on a person’s spiritual, emotional, and psychological health. And so he works with teenagers in the beautiful wilderness of North Carolina, hoping that they will develop some attachment, and have some grounding to the earth so that they can grow and thrive.

It is this notion throughout Scripture, and throughout some of our most important spiritual works–that attachment to the earth is vital for our spiritual nourishment.

There is an idea that somehow heaven and earth are connected. We pray, every week, “on earth, as it is in heaven,” and in the book of Revelations, those strange, prophetic scriptures, the writer communicates a vision of how there will be “a new heaven and a new earth.” And there, in Romans, there is an idea that the earth is groaning. The earth is moaning, as if it is in labor, waiting to be redeemed from destruction, waiting to be set free from the bondage of decay, waiting for new life.

There are some words of scripture don”t seem to make a whole lot of sense two thousand years later. Outside of their original context, they”re confusing. But this passage–this passage that John read this morning, the one from Romans, it makes so much more sense now than it must have thousands of years ago.

I often feel like I am wrapped in this bondage of decay that the ancient words speak about. Earth Day is coming up this week, and it is always a reminder that we have much to do to slow the effects of global warming. We will need to look at our personal habits, our practices as communities, and our national policies.

I know personally, we do what we can, buying our food from local farmer’s markets, growing what we can ourselves, relying on public transportation, cutting our energy use as much as possible. But, we are limited by time and by money, so that we can’t do everything that we wish we could do.

When I look at the businesses that surround us, (here, but also in South Louisiana, where there are so many companies that pollute) and realize the drastic changes that we will need to make before so that our corporations begin to act in a responsible manner, we know that it will take time, and it will take a lot of money. There will need to be a huge shift in priorities and sometimes it feels hopeless.

When we look globally, and we see the industrial and population expansion of countries around the world, then the problem gets too big for me. I’m not sure what can be done. I just know that the earth is groaning.

And, sometimes, it’s overwhelming. Often, my husband and I wonder if our grandchildren will be able to enjoy the earth in the same way that we have. And I become gripped by fear and sadness when I contemplate that answer, because I cannot automatically say yes. And that’s when I feel the bondage of decay.

The earth is groaning, and we are bound to destruction. The words, the words, I wish they weren’t true, but they are.

It’s so strange, but the church-at-large has not always done such a good job in caring for creation. Even though on of our first commands from God was to take care of the earth, in some religious movements, we have cut ourselves off from the earth, creating a separation between physical and the spiritual. From sciences and religion. I have seen it, over and over again from both sides. I have been in churches where they belittle science, and I have been saddened by their ignorance. And as a theological student, I have heard scientists berate me as ignorant.

I can understand the tensions, as people of faith have fought against stem cell research and theories of evolution in our country. People of faith have laughed at global warming theories. There is a growing home-school movement in our country dedicated to keep children away from the evils modern science. In some parts of our country these groups have done some significant damage in education. And they have certainly widened the rift between the spiritual and the natural, religion and the sciences.

Yet, I know what my friend Jesse says is true–that our spiritual, emotional, and environmental health is all wrapped up together. There’s no way to disassociate the Creator from the created. We cannot separate heaven from earth, and we cannot sit by and watch the divide between science and religion keep getting deeper and deeper in this country. We need to find bridges.

After all, it’s through hearing the birds that my eyes look up and focus on something beyond myself, it is through the pulsing streams that I have found so much peace and healing. There have been places in my life that are holy. And they are almost always among the jagged rocks, the flowing water, and the fine sand. It is when I look at the detailed texture of each shell that I know that we have an amazing God.

As we look around us, we can begin to understand our connection to the earth, as a part of creation that flows from God. And we can realize that what we do personally affects the earth, when we care for it and when we abuse it. Even though we’ve created shelters against the storms, air conditioning when it is hot, and heating when it is cold, and it seems that we have conquered so much of nature that we are no longer subject to it, we cannot become deaf to its groans.

For the groans have become louder and louder. We are hearing the reports of global warming. We are just beginning to understand its effects on our lives. The earth is heading toward destruction, and we need every available imaginative resource that we can muster up from religion, science, literature, economics, business, technology, and the arts. Every creative and created being, needs to hear the moans and begin to respond in their own way. And perhaps then we can begin to understand that along with the groans, there is also hope.

George Washington Carver was a botanist and educator who spent many of his years teaching former slaves farming techniques so that they could become self-sufficient. A former slave himself, Carver lived from 1864 to 1943, and in the South, he is widely recognized as a man who helped the transition from cotton crops, to sweet potatoes and peanuts. The cotton was being decimate by boll weevils and it was depleting the soil of its natural resources, so the transition was extremely important for the South.

Carver was a deeply spiritual man, and since his lab notes were sparse, I think now, his contribution was almost as much spiritual as scientific. Carver said that if you love anything enough it will tell you its secrets. And that seemed to be his attitude toward nature. He would paint plants, capture their beauty, as well as study them. He said, “I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting system, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.”

In 1924, the New York Times wrote an article entitled, “Men of Science Never Talk that Way” about George Washington Carver”s claim that God was leading him in his scientific pursuits. And he asked God every day, every moment, that God would give him wisdom, understanding and bodily strength so that he might convey what God was saying through the animal, mineral and Vegetable kingdoms. He wanted to communicate their relations to each other, to us, our relations to them, and to the Great God who made all of us. And he explained that he was asking and receiving at all times.

I grew up, hearing a lot about Carver. He’s a legendary figure in the South, and he continues to be a giant figure in my mind. Most often, I heard how he asked the God, “Dear Mr. Creator, please tell me what the universe was made for.”

The Great Creator answered, “You want to know too much for that little mind of yours. Ask for something more your size.”

Then he asked, “Dear Mr. Creator, tell me what man was made for.”

Again the Great Creator replied, “Little man you still are asking too much. Cut down the extent of your request and improve the intent.”

So then he asked, “Please Mr. Creator, will you tell me why the peanut was made?” And with that, Carver began to create hundreds of peanut products.

This morning is a morning of baptism. In this sacred time, we remember that our spiritual lives are marked by water. Clean, flowing water. And may this be a morning when we remember that our material lives are marked by water as well. They are bound together. Both our material and spiritual selves flow from God.

In this crucial moment in history, when we can hear the earth groaning, we can realize our connections. We can understand how our emotional, spiritual, physical and psychological health is bound to our environment. And in this crucial moment, we will need to pray for imagination and hope, so that we might find freedom from these bonds of destruction. So that we might have the strength and endurance to change our ways. So that we might work on a personal, communal, and political level to reverse our current trends. So that we might love this good earth enough, that we can hear its secrets. So that we can begin to understand how we can save it. So that our grandchildren might enjoy the beauty of the world as we know it.

The time for that spark of hope is now. We can hear the groans. We cannot wait any longer. We must act,

to the glory of God, our Creator,
God, our Liberator,
And God, our Sustainer. Amen.

the photo’s by Romoletto


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