Presbyterians Today February 20, 2019
What Presbyterians Believe about nature and creation
By Susan DeGeorge | Presbyterians Today
Count the stars. Open your eyes and see the well of water. Take a stone and use it as a pillow.
During my first year as a new pastor, I decided I would write a curriculum for our children that would focus on common outdoor experiences that they and the main characters in the book of Genesis had. The first lesson focused on God’s covenant with Abraham in which he was told to look at the sky and count the stars to get an idea of the number of his descendants. The next centered on Hagar and what it was like to be hot and thirsty and to discover a water source to quench your longing. The third week focused on Jacob’s falling asleep outdoors with a stone as a pillow. Week four’s curriculum was never written because by then I had discovered that the children in my suburban congregation had never counted stars on a dark night, quenched their thirst in a cool stream or slept out under the sky.
Over the years since then, I’ve learned that it wasn’t just those children in my first church who didn’t have a regular connection with God’s creation. Many of us are oblivious to or alienated from the earth around us. And yet, Presbyterians come from a tradition that calls us to know, honor, rejoice in and care for God’s creation. Our Scripture — from Genesis to Revelation — invites us to be in relationship with trees that clap their hands, as Isaiah proclaims; water that quenches thirst, cleanses, teaches about justice and quiets our anxiety; and animals that serve as helpers, partners and teachers. Our belief is centered on the Word becoming flesh — physical matter.
John Calvin, one of the forefathers of the Reformed tradition, viewed nature as an important source of knowledge of God, awakening us to God’s presence in our daily lives and, thus, is worthy of our care. For decades now, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has called us to be involved in and care for creation. Most recently, the 223rd General Assembly (2018) asked us to “raise a prophetic voice regarding the urgency of healing the climate of the earth, our home and God’s gift for the future of all life, human and nonhuman.”
But it’s hard to care for what you don’t know or have a relationship with. So, if we are to live what it is we say we believe as Presbyterians, our challenge is twofold. First, we must develop new, strong relationships with the rest of creation by providing occasions to immerse ourselves in the beauty and the mystery of creation in our congregational worship and in our daily lives. We might learn where the water in our baptism services and the bread and juice shared during the Lord’s Supper come from, and how the earth or rivers from which they were gathered connect to us and have been treated by us. We might provide occasions for those in our worshiping communities to take off their shoes and stand on the earth, literally as well as figuratively, recognizing the holiness of the ground on which we stand. We might gather on a dark night and look up at the stars, counting them and remembering God’s promise to Abraham and all his descendants.
Then, having strengthened our connections with creation, we must tend to those relationships through our daily choices — in what we consume, how we get from place to place, and how we treat the beings around us, along with the water, soil and air. Only then will we begin to embody Mark’s Gospel commission to go into all the world and proclaim the good news to all creation.
Susan DeGeorge is a minister, stated clerk of Hudson River Presbytery and professor of religious studies (with a specialization in religion and the environment) at Pace University in New York.