“We have never known what we were doing because we have never known what we were undoing.” -Wendell Berry
We recently had to raze the forest behind the family home to make way for moving the house back from the eroding bluff caused by Lake Michigan’s high water. This land was entrusted to me by my ancestors to keep and nurture. So, as the chainsaws gnashed their teeth into the flesh of defenseless and stately trees, helpless tears flowed in deep sorrow. When is a house worth more than the forest it occupies?
The Earth teems with life under our feet. We sift it through our hands in the garden, and plow it under to raise up food. It is our temporary home from cradle to grave. Genesis is clear that God created this planet from what was formless and void, matter that he carefully and brilliantly organized and formed into galaxies, seas, dry land, mountains, plains, ice caps, deserts, valleys, and pleasant places. At the start, things were temperate between the two vaults of water—the sea and the sky—and the first humans were settled into a lush garden so perfect that even clothing was unnecessary. As a matter of fact, of all the planets in our solar system, the Earth is the only one capable of sustaining human life and its need for tight regulation of human physiologic body temperature.
God’s Grand Hospitality: A Circle of Delight
Why did God create the Earth and then hand it to humans to cultivate, nurture, and enjoy? It is pure gift, God’s grand hospitality. Amy Oden characterizes Christian hospitality as having four necessary components: 1. welcome, 2. sustenance/rest, 3. dwelling/challenge and 4. sending. When God created the Earth, he had humans in mind as he made a place of wide and wonderful welcome. A place to call home. The seed-bearing plants and trees in the garden provided food without labor, shade without mosquitos. God invited the humans to walk with him in the cool of the evening: daily dwelling. He sent them into the garden with the directive to tend it with care, and, more importantly, to take great delight in it. After all, it always brings God great pleasure and glory when his creatures delight in him and his creation.
Earth. Spoken into existence purposely for our delight and his glory. He put us on it, made us from it, feeds us by it, plants us in it, and, since the Fall, returns us to it. Why would he do that if not to lovingly provide for us? It is a circle of delight not unlike what happens when we write. We craft something out of the void, speaking it into words on paper as a lavish form of hospitality to our readers that they may find delight in the words. And when they do, we too are delighted. So, it is not a stretch to believe that God had us in mind the whole time he was forming and filling the earth. And fill it he did, with astounding and diverse beauty and prolificacy. Why the wren and egret, the chickadee and ostrich when just a crow would suffice? Why the magnificent and awesome stretch down the taxonomic line from kingdom and phyla to genus and species? Why else but because God wanted to delight us?
Yes, the Earth is pure, hospitable gift. Still, it is necessary to remember that the host owns the home, and that the guests are there by invitation. When it comes to God’s directive to steward this Earth, we sometimes carry out our Eden assignment well. We live simply without binge-like consumption. We recycle. We ration water with great respect for our need of it. We care for the poor, and orphan, and widow out of the resources we have because we’ve been obedient and responsible. But there is yet to consider our (and Earth’s) full participation in the Fall, where we and Earth groan together under the shroud of sin that curses us all.
Flipping the Script
What on earth? Has God’s grand hospitality been flipped? We prefer to be Earth’s owners, to usurp the role of host. There can be no walking with God in his creation because we think of ourselves as God. It is the ultimate idolatry. When we think we rule the Earth, we stand over it rather than attempting any thought to understanding it. Our consumption and greed ruins much of what we touch, while in our minds we think, “surely God didn’t say…” So, we continue to dirty ourselves and ravage the Earth. There is a grand reckoning that will require a grander repentance because the Earth is reaching limits beyond which life will not be sustainable.
Jesus left the honor and grandeur of heaven and came meekly down to earth. He willingly stepped his glorious feet into the dirt and grit of an earthly life. Jesus, from throne to filthy stable. Jesus, God in a human body living on Earth as a nobody, mantled in poverty, without a bed despite sleeping atop his own storehouse of Earth’s hidden gold, silver, and gemstones, and under the very stars he set in motion. Jesus, mixing divine spit with earthly clay, healing sightless eyes. Jesus, at Simon the Pharisee’s house, where the hospitality of water for washing was intentionally omitted, a blatant signal of disrespect. Jesus reclining and dining there with filthy road-weary feet until a woman comes up from behind to wash them with her tears. Jesus, at death’s door, washing the earth from the disciples’ feet. Oh, how beautiful those feet that will bring the good news.
Then another flip. What on Earth happens? The people rise up to move heaven and Earth to kill the owner’s son. The earth was soaked in the very blood of God. They “returned” a dead Jesus to the earth. But since he did not come from the earth, the earth could not hold him. His resurrection was—and still is—Earth shattering.
This is redemptive history, and we are called to continue our assignment of Eden care for one another and for this Earth today in ways that work to redeem our tragic mistakes. Surely, Christ will return to initiate the final re-making of both heaven and Earth as dictated by God’s “all things new” blueprint. For now, though, we must confront the truth of our complicit failures. We are tasked with care, but we are cruel. We are expected to steward but we squander, to cultivate but we corrupt. It is a corporate and blatant disregard for God’s hospitality and the very things that feed, clothe, shelter, and sustain us on this Earth, undermining the very laws—sacred and secular—meant to protect both us and the Earth. Perhaps we have lost our senses, especially any common sense for the common good that would nourish us all, because as the apex of God’s creation, our place of honor is degraded by our powerful, incessant predation. After all, since the Fall, “[m]an is preeminently a predator.” Like Wendell Berry observed, what we do takes no thought for what we undo. And if we don’t stop the destruction, it won’t be long before our earthly home can no longer support us. The Earth itself stands as witness against us. (Deuteronomy 30:19).
We Can Be Optimistic
Still, I am optimistic that not all need be lost if you have a reformer’s mindset. My daughter lives in France. In Paris it is customary to pack a baguette and bottle of wine under your arm and find a sunny spot along the Seine for a picnic. The problem is that the river is an unpleasant mucky cesspool. Everyone always shrugs and says, ‘c’est la vie’- it is what it is and it can’t be undone. Enter the specter of the 2024 Summer Olympics and France’s crazy desire to hold some swim competitions in the Seine. They have made heroic and unprecedented efforts to clean up the mess, and it is working. They are undoing what, for 150 years or more, has been a free-flowing sewer.
Wendell Berry encourages us to take care of our own small plot, and to steward what we can. It means we should actively inform ourselves and each other what’s going on around us, participate in actions that clean up messes, stop allowing over-development, and demand changes to aggressive and unjust zoning policies that endanger the environments of the marginalized and voiceless. We can and must use all of our collective wisdom to cultivate and nurture rather than pillage and destroy. Most times, history proves the Earth fully capable of recovery and resurrection from man’s folly. So first, we have to stop. Then lament. Then repent while letting the Earth rest. We have undone this magnificent creation, and now is the time to stop thinking our actions and apathy don’t hurt it. Positive change is a monumental task on the corporate scale, but personally there is much we can do on our own.
What does that look like? In my own life, it is replanting the forest and dune with care even though I cannot possibly experience its impact in my lifetime. Mostly it means learning to make do with less. To conserve water at every possible juncture even though a Great Lake washes ashore in front of me daily. To walk or bike instead of driving, to eat less when tempted to overindulge. To waste less food and learn to compost* the scraps. To refrain from buying things cocooned in plastic. To switch cars and appliances to energy-efficient models as I am able and to help others find a way to do likewise. We can and must decrease our consumption of everything from clothing to junk to food to electricity and gasoline. We can even stop our addictive mass consumption of media that encourages us to buy, buy, buy. And what about our tidy auto-centric lives that encourage us (moms especially) to live in our cars? It’s time to advocate for safe bike lanes and plan our trips better, perhaps even consider enrolling our children in fewer after-school activities that require so much to-and-fro driving. It also means fostering a sense of stewardship across one’s city, town, and county by becoming an informed voter and a responsive citizen who pays attention to public policy. Remember, God gifted us to do these very things.
We are stewards and God means us to be content in that role. Every little bit we do adds up over time. So, it is time to be about God’s business in the garden, undoing the damage and doing nothing harmful when and wherever we can. It is time to thank our true host and go out and do his good work. God’s grand hospitality demands nothing less.