When I was little, I had a strange obsession with the environment. I collected animal stickers, watched endless documentaries on the Discovery Channel and stayed up late at night worrying about the rain forest. It was an odd concern, one that made my parents and schoolteachers call me “mature for my years.”
As I see it now, this interest was actually the development of guilt. How could I learn about oil spills and endangered species at school and not do anything? I even spent a whole Earth Day cleaning up the field behind my backyard, ripping buried plastic bags from the dirt, my back and hands aching from the unending task. At the end of the day, I looked over the field and thought, “I did a good job. I did something.”
If I were to return to that field, I know that the cleaning I did years ago would be for nothing – bags and trash would be everywhere. And, quite honestly, that shames me in a way that I don’t quite fully understand. The environment feels huge to me, a problem that is too big for my small attempts to go green – my biodegradable laundry detergent simply cannot face the BP oil spill.
My childhood can-do attitude has lapsed into an uneasy apathy, but as Earth Day falls near the church’s long season of Lent, I’m left thinking about Christ, the church, my response to the earth, to creation. I’m left thinking about Christ because, leading up to Easter, we are called to reflect on our brokenness and our need for Him. Yet often, Lenten disciplines devolve into shameless attempts at fixing ourselves, when Easter reminds us that it is Christ who conquers all.
And so on Earth Day, I do not want to launch myself into can-do spirituality, wondering how I can renew my earlier commitment to Earth. I do not want to slide into the language of Earth Day’s organizers, who tell me to “discover energy” within myself and to fight climate change, rally the troops, pick up trash.
It is sinful to believe that my efforts, or the efforts of collective humanity, are the answer to creation’s ills.
I picked up trash as a child because the enormity of sin terrified me. Here was a brokenness that I didn’t understand, a field that no amount of back-breaking work could clean. A heart that no amount of my own effort could make whole. What breaks the creation – and what breaks me – is sin, its absolute pervasive nastiness, a dark streak running down the middle of me, spilling across the Louisiana gulf, piling in our landfills.
Living greenly and caring for the environment are good, moral things to do. It is irresponsible and sinful for us to pretend that this world doesn’t matter. But it is also sinful to believe that my efforts, or the efforts of collective humanity, are the complete answer to creation’s ills. My recycling is an important act, not because it alone saves the earth, but because it is an act of penitence. I recycle because the act of recycling reminds me of my dependence on the earth, my ability to ruin it and God’s call to see the created world as my neighbor. If, as Paul writes, the creation “groans” for redemption, part of our work as disciples is to see our efforts as part of that groaning, that yearning, for Christ’s return.
Christ died for the greed that created the BP oil spill and Christ rose for a new heaven and a new earth. The work of discipleship is to ask God’s Spirit to continually transform us, and to help us hope and work for the coming of God’s kingdom. Can picking up trash be a dual act of repentance and hope? And if so, can we see the earth and its needs, not as a chance to be heroic, but to be neighborly?
If Christ’s death and resurrection is cosmic in scope, and if the Spirit empowers us to live as God’s people, then attempts to care for the creation must be seen as signs of that coming kingdom, which will truly make all things new. As we reflect on the cross and empty tomb, may we groan with all creation, our hearts weeping with the trees and stones, who, for Christ, have the sense to sing.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this piece originally appeared in April of 2011.