Gardeners, not gods

Writers, artists and composers love the garden of Eden story because it works on so many levels and gets to the heart of who we are as humans. The story isn’t about disobedience as much as broken relationships – with each other, with nature, and with God.

The creation stories remind us we’re made from relationship and for relationship. We’re fashioned within a trinity of relationships — with God, with each other, with nature.

Those relationships are interwoven. If one suffers, they all suffer. Everything unravels quickly if we’re ignoring one area of relationship.

We experience that so profoundly in our world today. Our “original sin” or fundamental failure is refusing to center ourselves within the nurturing relationships that are essential if we’re to be happy, peaceful and fulfilled.

Without nurturing relationship, we never experience love.

Made from relationship, for relationship

The parable of the garden of Eden reminds us of who we are, whose we are, and how we are meant to live in harmony. The story places us in the role of gardener, not the garden owner. We’re meant to “cultivate and care for” God’s creation.

It nurtures us, and we nurture it. God is inviting us to become partners in this holy, ongoing work. And the story warns that if we choose not to accept the role and instead focus only on ourselves, we are “doomed to die.”

Of course, the humans in the story aren’t satisfied with the role of cultivator and co-creator. They decide they’d rather assign themselves the role of God – well, their self-indulgent version of a god, anyway – and do whatever they wish.

They delude themselves into thinking the garden belongs to them.

Once their relationship with creation begins to go awry because of their choices, so do all their other relationships. Their relationship with each other quickly degenerates into pointing fingers and assigning blame. They try to hide from God.

Every relationship quickly breaks down. Ultimately, they’re not so much driven from the garden as they’ve chosen to leave it by placing greed and self-interest above the garden and all within it.

I wish we could say that religion helps us refocus and re-center ourselves in the truth of relationship, but we all know that’s often not the case. It has too often been used to divide rather than reconcile.

A web of interwoven relationships

Instead of calling us back to our roles of gardener and lovers, religion has been turned into a weapon for cultural, religious and political wars. Loving relationship has been rejected for power and self-importance. The original sin is repeated.

Sadly, religion also gets misused as approval to rape, pillage and desecrate God’s sacred creation. Some “religious” people insist they can do whatever they want to nature because they, as humans, are all that matter.

Destruction and self-destruction result from this horrid theology.

Last week, we celebrated Earth Day, a reminder of our interwoven relationships with all God’s creation. We need reminders of our call to be in nurturing, loving relationship with nature, one another, and God.

Our faith reminds us that we’re not gods but gardeners. There’s a lot of restorative work to be done. It’s time to get our fingers dirty.

Burning rivers and God’s garden

Cuyahoga pollution

The Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, blazing for two hours and focusing attention on my hometown. That moment became a flashpoint in the environmental movement.

Since the 1800s, industries had set up along the river and used it as a dumping ground for hazardous waste. The river turned orange and caught fire more than a dozen times. Many other polluted rivers in the Midwest caught fire as well.

Burning rivers weren’t the only issue. Steel mills released chemicals into the air that stung the eyes and left an acrid taste in mouths – I remember it well.

And it wasn’t just a Midwest problem. Cities around the world were trapped in a brown, deadly haze of smog. Rural areas had groundwater contaminated by dumped chemicals.

We’d made a mess of the world.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a good time to remember our connection to each other and all creation and to recommit ourselves to doing the job God has given us.

What is that job? Our faith traditions are clear. We’re tasked with caring for all creation and each other.

Genesis reminds us that diversity and relationship are expressions of the divine nature itself.

One parabolic story reminds that we’re created from the same stuff as the earth and each other, so we must never think of ourselves as separate from anyone or anything else.

Creation is seamless.

The Eden story depicts God putting humans in the garden and giving us the responsibility “to cultivate and care for it.” The garden isn’t ours; we’re just the gardeners.

As the story also reminds us, when we refuse to accept our role and we instead act as though we own everything, we commit the foundational sin and everything goes to hell.

The story of Noah’s ark reminds us that we’re responsible for caring for the animals, which are part of God’s all-inclusive covenant that endures today.

Fast-forward to Jesus, who clearly loved creation. He went into nature to hear God’s voice. His stories compared God’s kingdom to seeds and plants. He marveled at the flowers and birds.

We experience God through creation, so long as we recognize its innate holiness and treat it with the required reverence.

Sadly, we’ve often done the opposite. Self-absorption leads us to monetize everything. People are treated as commodities to be manipulated for gain or sold as slaves. The earth is parceled and plundered and used up, then discarded.

Everything becomes disposable, including the garden we’re meant to tend and the animals we’re meant to protect and the people we’re meant to love.

No! Those who hear God’s invitation to be gardeners must respond.

After the Cuyahoga caught fire in 1969, people responded. The EPA was formed a year later with strong bipartisan support, and laws were passed to provide clean air and water.

Some people want to turn our rivers orange again, make the air brown, and pollute the ground with toxic substances. They’re willfully ignorant of global warming’s damage.

Our faith requires us to act. This month, we not only celebrate creation, we also recommit ourselves to working with God to nurture it and protect it from further harm. It’s our assigned job.

As Pete Seeger puts it: “God’s counting on me. God’s counting on you.”

(photo from Cleveland Museum of Natural History)

On the eighth day …

Sunset now

There’s a misconception that creation is a done deal, some grand project that God polished off in six figurative days. And then, with nothing left to do, God called it a day and got some rest.

Nothing is further from the truth.

The seventh day was followed by the eighth day of creation. And the second week. And month. And year.

And now.

Creation is an ongoing act, and God isn’t going it alone. That divine creativity is woven into our DNA. We’re active participants, chosen to be co-creators for our little chunk of the universe.

It’s good to remind ourselves of that responsibility this weekend and to spend some time thinking about what we’re doing to the world that God entrusted into our care.

Are we taking seriously the job that is ours individually and collectively? Are we treating all of creation as something sacred, or are we acting as though God’s handiwork doesn’t matter?

Many people don’t give it much thought. Some think that we should do whatever we wish to our world because we have “dominion” over it, which is a total misreading of our role.

The divine directive

Giving us dominion gives us direct responsibility to care and protect. That’s the point driven home from the beginning – we’re expected to conserve our world and nurture it.

Some of the most poetic and beautiful writing about creation is found in the Hebrew scriptures. The creation stories aren’t meant to be science or history or journalism; none of those things was around when Genesis was written. Rather, the stories are more parables meant to remind us of our connections to everything, including the creator.

The first story reminds us that our creator loves diversity – it’s a reflection of the divine spirit. God doesn’t just make one type of anything, but many variations of everything, including us.

We need to be attentive to respecting, fostering, celebrating and encouraging our great diversity.

The second creation story presents us with the wonderful image of humans beings being made from a scoop of earth. We’re not separate from the earth but derive from it, which makes us one with it. To desecrate the earth is to desecrate ourselves as well.

The second creation story also reminds us that we’re joined intimately not only to the earth, but to each other. We’re joined at the ribs, so to speak, and we are animated by the same divine breath.

The stories remind us that all of creation is interwoven, and we’re given responsibility to nurture it. We are caretakers for creation, and caregivers for one another. To trash either the earth or another person is the ultimate profanity.

Never about us alone

This point gets driven home even more directly in another familiar tale later in Genesis. Noah is instructed to care not only for his human family, but all the animals on the ark. The lives of the animals matter as much as his own.

And when the floods recede, God makes a covenant not only with humans – again, it’s never about us alone — but with the animals as well. We’re all in a covenantal relationship, everyone and everything all together.

That covenant remains intact today.

We’re still on the ark called Earth, entrusted with caring for all of creation as extensions of God’s creative hands and loving heart.

So this weekend, let’s remember our responsibility and renew our commitment to one another and to all of creation. Let’s never think of God’s beautiful world – something very good that was entrusted to all of us together – as something we have a right to abuse or desecrate.

Caring for all of creation isn’t optional. It’s a divine directive.

And let’s remember, too, that the earth’s bounty is for all. Nobody has a monopoly or a claim on any part of it. It’s a gift given freely for all to share. We need to treat it as such.

It’s the eighth day. What kind of world are we creating?