Discipleship at Home and Work: Reflection
The nurture and support we get from worship and education with our Christian community is ultimately meant to empower us for life in the world. Worship and education are designed to renew and reorient us to the kinds of relationships that will enable us to live the life God would have us live in our daily existence—to love our families and our neighbors, to do our work with honesty and integrity, to be committed to justice, to be honorable citizens of the country and the world, and to care for creation.
The United States is a materialistic culture that drives us to take many things for granted. We believe that our happiness depends on many possessions. Many of these possessions are luxuries. We believe that bigger is better—house, cars, televisions. We will buy many things that make our lives easier. As we are able, we purchase a host of products that serve efficiency, even though they may harm the environment. Just as the economy is based on unlimited growth, so also do we base our personal lifestyle on unlimited growth. We assume that if we have money, we have the moral right to spend it on whatever we want, regardless of the impact on others or the environment. We believe we should be able to get our goods cheap, despite the fact that those goods may be made by people receiving non-living wages and under conditions that destroy natural resources.
We seldom call these beliefs into question or consider an alternative set of values by which to live. The commitment to care for creation leads us to challenge these cultural assumptions and to embrace a lifestyle that is committed to justice for people and care for the earth. No longer can we afford to be ignorant of the impact of our lifestyle choices on others and on the Earth. No longer can we turn a blind eye to the consequences of the things we buy or the practices we carry out. We now need to learn where our purchases come from and what happens as a result of our lifestyle.
The opportunity to purchase some “fair trade” products reveals the difference. Most coffee you purchase from the store or from a coffee shop is made in places outside the United States where the laborers are paid as little as possible, the land is stripped of trees and shrubbery, pesticides and herbicides are used to maximize the crop, and there are many “middle people” between the crop and the buyer. By contrast, fair trade coffee is made under conditions where the workers form a cooperative, they are paid a living wage, the trees and shrubs are preserved and actually serve to fertilize the land on which the coffee grows, the use of pesticides is kept to a minimum, and there are few “middle men” to add unnecessary cost. One may pay a little more for fair trade coffee, but we have done an act of justice and we have saved the terrible long-term costs on the Earth from short-term profits. What we need is the choice of fair trade products not just for coffee and tea and chocolate but for everything we purchase. Better yet, all products should be produced under fair conditions that honor workers and respect the Earth. While we are not there as a culture, we nevertheless need to make the decisions we are able to make now—as a counter-cultural act designed to express our Christian convictions and to witness to the possibilities of creating a new and different world.
The concept that seems to have taken hold among Christians is to choose a lifestyle that reflects “simple living.” Many resources are available—books, courses, alternative products, group activities, packets—all designed to give us directions to adopt a lifestyle that is equitable toward others who have less and that minimizes our destructive impact on the Earth. What follows are some reflections on what it might take to embrace a lifestyle of simple living and what actions and choices we might make to carry it out.
Home and Work
In a sense, care for creation “begins at home.” Home is where we tend to be ourselves. We show our true colors there. Few others will observe what we do at home. For that reason, our homes present the greatest challenge to our commitment to care for creation. There are many people who have a public commitment to the environment who never apply it to their own house and property. They do not put their private commitments—money, time, effort, and daily practices—where their public commitments are. If we can show our Christian commitment to care for creation in our own home, we have come a long way toward establishing environmental integrity with habits that will last a lifetime.
Often we are prevented from doing things at home because we think the things we do in our homes are so small and insignificant as to make no difference in the larger scheme of things. We might say to ourselves: What difference does it really make to turn the heat down a few notches or the air conditioning up a few notches? What difference does it make whether we mow the lawn with a power mower or a push mower? How could it matter that we eat fish rather than beef? Why bother to recycle products we have to take to a recycling center when it will not change the big picture? What is the measure of difference that we pay more money for a car that has gas mileage or an appliance that is more energy efficient? And so on. When we see so many other things happening where the effects of pollution are huge, we become discouraged.
Small efforts add up. But we do make a difference. Many small actions on the part of many, many people can amount to a tidal wave of difference. And these small actions can provide the conditions for other, more dramatic actions to take place in the culture. We need to learn to act unilaterally and to resist becoming discouraged. Scientists and environmentalists in the secular world often look to the churches to make a difference, because religious communities are the largest, most extensive grass roots organizations in the country.
Some years ago, I came to understand the importance of small efforts when Stan Hallett, a Chicago environmentalist, used the analogy of the destruction wrought by Mount St. Helen’s volcano. Here is what he said:
“When the volcano blew, it destroyed all animal and plant life for miles around. The whole area was absolutely decimated. There was no sign of life whatsoever. Then little by little the flora and fauna progressively began to return. Here’s how it happened. First, the moss came back, and the moss created the conditions for the lichen to grow. Insects and beetles appeared. When the lichen returned, that created the conditions for the shrubbery to grow. The shrubbery returned, and that created the conditions for the aspen trees to begin to grow again. And the animal life returned. In a similar way, all the small efforts we make at the grass roots level are like the moss, creating the conditions for greater things to happen, which create the conditions for wider changes to happen at the local level, which in turn create the conditions for even more extensive changes to take place at the level of corporations and governments.”
Thus, even with small efforts, we are an important part of a broad movement of regeneration, indeed a process of resurrection, which is taking place among us. And we must be sure to do our part, so that we may once again, this time with passion and with action, dedicate ourselves to the care and redemption of all that God has made.
It’s the Right Thing to Do. But even if it did not seem to make a large difference, is that any reason not to do it? Compare our common attitude to love and justice. What if we said, why bother to do small acts of kindness, because in the larger scheme of things it does little to stem the tide of evil and injustice in the world. No, we say that every act of kindness is valuable in itself. We can make a difference in people’s lives. And, besides, in the end, you never know; a small act of kindness may have a larger ripple effect or combine with the kindnesses of others to reach a threshold of transformation. And whether it is small or large, it matters because people matter. Besides, our actions and commitments help create “the people we are,” quite apart from the results of our actions.
Can we not transfer such attitudes to our care for God’s creation? Small or large, the things we do matter, because nature matters, because life forms are affected by the choices we make, because humans are profoundly affected by the changes that take place in the environment. And the disciplined actions we take “to serve and to preserve” the Earth shapes us a people who care about life. Can we not embrace a concern for the environment that matches our commitment to love people and to do justice for people? Can we not love God, love our neighbor, and care for the Earth, and do it just because it is the right thing to do—whether or not it “works”?
Caring for the earth is an expression of our love for God. It is a spiritual discipline, a discipline to do no harm, to foster life rather than death. There is something compassionate about caring enough about people and nature that we attend to things in a careful, care-filled way. We learn what harm our actions can bring, and we seek to minimize that harm and promote the health of the planet. Such a spiritual discipline involves a deep connection with earth and trees and animals and flowers and plants and the sun, soil, and air—such a deep connection that we want to conserve its goodness and beauty and usefulness. Our care for nature comes from our love of nature, just as our care for people is rooted in our love of people. When we act to enable fish to thrive in a lake rather than be damaged by pollution, we love these creatures of the sea for their own sake—empowering fish to praise God by being fish and doing what fish were created to do and to be.
Home as Green Zone. When we think about the actions we can take as a spiritual discipline in our homes and at our work, it is salutary to realize that we can make decisions that directly affect every aspect of the environmental crisis. We often think our homes are insulated from nature because we are inside! We forget the environmental impact of our homes. But look! Our homes are directly connected to every dimension of the environmental crises and the ecological concerns that we face. Just think about what comes into our homes and what goes out of our homes.
● Electricity lines come into our homes from coal-burning plants.
● Water pipes bring increasingly limited fresh water from filtration plants
● Gas pipes bring in natural gas from distant places
● Sewage lines take water and waste out to sewage processing plants.
● Chimneys release carbon dioxide from the furnace into the atmosphere
● Food in the refrigerator has traveled by truck from great distances
● Food has been raised using pesticides and chemical fertilizer
● Meat we eat may be raised at the top of the food chain
● Paper and Wood for furniture depletes the forests
● Garbage trucks take garbage to land fills, perhaps including also toxic waste.
● Cars in the driveway burn gasoline and use oil and emit pollutants into the air
● Lawn mowers and other machinery emit pollutants into the air
● Air-conditioning emits chlorofluorocarbons that erode the ozone layer
● Pesticides and herbicides used on the lawn get into the air and water and soil
● Leather chairs and shoes can be traced to cattle ranches in California or Brazil
● Cleaning products—from laundry detergent to window washing fluid with toxic substances—that pollute the air and water.
● And the list could go on.
The point is that the choices we make every day in our homes and on our property directly affect global warming, ozone deterioration, air pollution, water pollution, depletion of fresh water reserves, waste accumulation, toxic seepage, the loss of rain forest, and a host of other consequences that affect the quality and now the survival of life on earth.
What if we addressed every one of these items in our homes so as to reduce our ecological imprint on the environment—lowering the thermostat in winter and raising it in summer, reducing our use of water, recycling a higher percentage of items, using recycled paper products and certified wood, refusing to put pesticides/herbicides on our lawns or to use toxic cleaning products, mowing with a hand mower, and so on. If many of us acted accordingly, the cumulative effect could be monumental. The point is that we can make a difference with each and every choice we make to walk more lightly upon the earth.
Investing in the future of creation. Our management of our money is also an integral part of our care for the Earth. This commitment includes the willingness to purchase products, appliances, and services that are Earth-friendly. It includes the willingness to refuse to purchase products and services—such as low-mileage cars, lawn service, leaf blowers, and toxic cleaners—that contribute to the degradation and destruction of nature. Investing in the future deals also with our financial contributions. There are many organizations and agencies—local, national, and global—that are working hard to change the hearts of the people and the laws of the land and the practices of corporations—that are worthy of our support. There has been little government support for such non-profit organizations; so they depend upon our generosity to do their vital work. Finally, investing in the future of creation includes our investments in stocks and bonds, in environmental companies, in research programs, and in corporations and businesses that are greening their products and practices. We need to turn the tide in favor of an economy that supports a sustainable lifestyle not just for us personally but also for our society and our world. Our individual commitments are an important part of that movement.
Greening our Workplaces. The same point can be made about our work. Look around at work and begin to notice all the things that negatively affect the environment. In many cases, the effort to reduce the environmental impact will also save the company money. In other cases, the upfront money will get a short term payback. In other matters, the effort may cost money but be well worth it in terms of the health and well being of workers, clients, and neighbors. Some things may require significant sacrifices on behalf of our overall environment and may require significant adaptive changes on the part of the company. Nevertheless, we are all going to have to do our part to make the human ecosystem safe for future generations. And sometimes we may have to act unilaterally just because we know it is the right thing to do.
So, look around the office or the factory or the sales and services you provide. Take the same care with these matters as you might take with the greening of your home and the greening of your church.
Care for Creation as Spiritual Discipline.
Personal Coping. Everyday we get news items detailing some aspect of the deterioration of the natural world—global warming, extreme weather patterns, droughts, holes in the ozone layer, the destruction of forests, fires out of control, the erosion of arable land, problems of waste, loss of species, problems with clean air and clean water, the population explosion, and on and on. Occasionally we get good news about some new effort being made to address one or more of these issues. But overall it is overwhelming and deeply discouraging. Then we throw up our hands in despair and say “What’s the use” or put our heads in the sand and deny there is any problem we can do anything about.
How are we to cope with these things? How do we find the resources to keep going? There are obviously many ways. Action itself is certainly one way, partly because it makes us feel better but mainly because we can make a difference. As we have said, we can take actions in our homes, at our work, and together with others in our communities, such as in our congregation. And we should be embracing these actions wholeheartedly. We should be pursuing changes in our lifestyles and programs of activity that alter our behavior.
Yet, despite all the avenues for action, what we need at the same time is spiritual sustenance and inspiration for the journey. And it is a long, adventuresome journey that humanity is embarking on to address these issues. We need to be prepared to be in this endeavor for the long haul. The degradation of nature is not a problem with a short term solution. If we are to attain a level of human activity that is ecologically sustainable for the future, we need to engage in a process that will transform us and our children in an enduring way. We need to hear words that lift us and challenge us. We need to meditate in ways that give us a solid center of commitment to the whole natural world. We need to become aware of the multiple ways in which our ordinary daily activities have an impact on the intricately woven web of creation. And we need to know the effects that our actions have on all the vulnerable people—both locally and globally—who are most profoundly affected by the degradation of creation. As such, we need to develop our daily attention to the care of the Earth as a spiritual discipline.
It’s a spiritual issue. The point is this: at its most profound level, the ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis. It comes as a result of our alienation from nature, our estrangement from the very ground from which human life, indeed all of life, has emerged. Our civilization has built so many barriers to a relationship with the rest of nature, barriers that separate us from the soil of the land, the myriad animals, the beautiful diversity of plants, the multi-colored and textured rocks, the geological formations that make up our surroundings. We no longer have a sense of belonging, no longer a sense of solidarity with plants and animals—such that we want all forms of life to thrive along with us.
Furthermore, we have reduced nature to things. We are interested in nature primarily in terms of the way we can use it to make our life “better.” And we seem to believe that we can exploit the natural world around us without consequences. We do not see the sacredness of life, the presence of the glory of God in all reality. We have lost the experience of the livingness of all things and the sanctity of all life. We need to recover a sense of reverence for life that will lead us to treat all creatures with love and respect and thereby to walk lightly on the earth.
And we have also lost our sense of appropriate human limitations in the presence of the divine. We seem to believe that we and the world are unlimited in potential. We think we have a right to acquire as much wealth as we want or as much wealth as we are able to obtain. We believe our world should know no boundaries. Our economy is based on the hypothesis of unlimited resources and unlimited growth. We take it for granted that we can discard unlimited amounts of trash in a use-and-throwaway society. And we assume that we can put unlimited amounts of pollutants in the air and water. We are guilty as a whole society of unbelievable hubris and arrogance, because we have no sense of limitations. We think that if we are able to do something, that notion in itself gives us the right to do it. And we do all of this with no real sense of the consequences of our lifestyle on others and on the rest of nature. We need to recover a sense of humility that will put limits on our activity—limits that will respect the rest of life and give space for all to thrive.
And we approach environmental problems much like we approach many other problems. We want a technological fix so that the problems takes care of themselves without really asking anything of us. We do not want to have to change our behavior or our lifestyle—to own less, to drive less, to turn heat down, to purchase certain products, and so on. We just want some magic bullet to target the problem and solve it. True enough, we need all the technological fixes we can find. But we are facing problems that will not be solved by technology alone. We will need to change our lifestyles, our standard of living, our conveniences, our economic relationships, and our attitudes toward and our relationships with nature.
Even when we try to develop a simpler, more limited lifestyle that addresses these issues, we are confronted with the unbelievably fast pace of our modern world—and its corollary, efficiency. We have come to expect that there will be ways to make everything we do more efficient—easier and quicker than ever before. The resulting products and processes of efficiency are among the most devastating to the earth. How can we slow down? How can we stop living at such a break-neck pace? How can we find a center out of which slowly and carefully we can attend to the world around us and the people around us with fresh regard and thoughtfulness? It is not easy.
It is not easy partly because all of the messages we get from our capitalist society telling us that our hunger for meaning and satisfaction will be filled by the acquisition of things. If we only could have this car or those clothes, this cell phone or that gadget, this convenience or that luxury, then we would be alright. We need to rethink our values and priorities and begin to live an alternative lifestyle, one that finds meaning and satisfaction from the very source of life itself, a relationship that can restore us to solidarity with nature that will bring us new life.
A spirituality “rooted” in creation would be a way forward—a relationship with God through the experience of the natural world that would orient us to fresh values, an alternative lifestyle, and a centering of ourselves for kindness and thoughtfulness toward all of life. It is clear that delight is the right basis for use. We will not exploit that in which we delight. Or to put it another way: we will not save what we do not love.
In the face of all these things, how are we to find the inspiration, the motivation, and the sustenance to embrace care for creation in an enduring way? Will we be motivated by fear? Guilt? Shame? Grief? Rage? What would be an adequate source of energy for this work? How could this work be life-giving and not life-depleting? We will probably be driven by all of these at one time or another. However, in the end, these motivations are not appropriate or productive. With such motivations, we will not make the best choices or be sustained for the long haul.
Rather, we are called to be sustained by what the poet Wendell Berry calls the “fund of grace by which alone we live” and what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins depicted as “the dearest freshness deep down things.” Only by seeking to be fed by the reservoir of God’s grace—the same love of God that is in all things and the same delight that God has for all things—only thus will we be able to face the threats before us without being overwhelmed. Only in this way will we have joy and energy for the task.
We are entering an age in which environmental events and concerns will be the dominant issues of the day. As Father Thomas Berry says, developing a sustainable life on earth in the face of ecological challenges is the “great work” of our time. It is a great work that everyone can be part of at some level. It is work that will involve the transformation of people and structures. It is work that will require vision and sacrifice. It is also work to be done with joy and grace. And it is work to be done in our every day life—at home, at work, and in our communities.
We encourage you to be intentional about your commitment to care for earth. Do a room by room assessment of your home and figure out what choices you can make to walk more lightly on the earth. Look at the practices of lawn and garden care. Evaluate your purchases of goods and food. Get a manual that explains how to green your home. Make a list of commitments you plan to embrace in your home and at work. Post these commitments on the refrigerator or as reminders throughout the home. Get some daily devotional material that reminds you all the time why it is important to do these things. Find a group at your church or in your neighborhood to share your commitment and provide support. Take a course, read a book, consult others who have already begun the journey. Teach others in your family how to participate as earth-keepers. Together join the movement to participate in the great work of our generation—caring for all Earth community.