Text: Genesis 1:1-2:4
We are a gift giving society. I have been reminded of this in the last month, as I have bought gifts for Mother’s Day, high school graduation, and Father’s Day. It would seem that Americans give gifts for almost every holiday and personal milestone. Giving a gift is a way to say to someone that we love them or are proud of them. It is a way to honor someone whom we care about or to say thank you for an act of kindness. Or it can be a way to mark a significant transition or a new beginning in life.
Some of my favorite gifts have come from my children. Clay art in various shapes and sizes from art camps over the years sit proudly on my bookcases as priceless treasures. Mother’s Day coupons from my children for back massages and promised room cleanings are tucked away as keepsakes. Another of my most cherished gifts is an old watch that someone gave me when she found out that I collected old watches. When she gave it to me she explained that it was her mother’s watch and she had held onto it all these years not knowing what to do with it. She said that when she heard that I collected old watches she wanted me to have it. I love the watch and it is among my most treasured items. And yet, I am aware that the real gift she gave me was not the watch itself, but rather entrusting me to care for her mother’s watch.
As much as I like receiving gifts, I enjoy much more giving gifts. I love giving gifts that have meaning or symbolize some aspect of my relationship with the person to whom I am giving the gift. For me, giving someone a gift signifies a connection or a shared experience. Often, when I find it difficult to express my thoughts or feelings to another, I find that giving a small gift that I have made communicates what I want them to know.
Several years ago, The New York Times ran an article about the psychology of gift giving. The article by Tara Parker-Pope was titled A Gift that Gives Right Back? The Giving Itself. She notes that gift giving has long been a favorite subject for studies on human behavior and that research has found that giving gifts is a surprisingly complex and important part of human interaction, helping to define relationships and strengthen bonds with family and friends. Interestingly, the research has shown that it is often the giver, rather than the recipient, who reaps the biggest psychological gains from a gift. As one psychologists noted, “giving to others reinforces our feelings for them and makes us feel effective and caring.”
Indeed, the social value of giving has been recognized throughout human history. And within every culture, traditions around gift giving are as varied as the cultures themselves—as varied as the food, clothing, and religious traditions. For instance, in Chinese culture gifts are accepted with a reserved demeanor. In order not to appear greedy, a gift will not be immediately taken, but refused three times before finally being accepted. Each time it’s refused, the giver must graciously continue to offer the gift. And once it’s taken, the giver is to tell the person they are happy that the gift has been accepted. In Japan, gift giving is an art form, representing friendship, respect, and gratitude. The ceremony is important; the gift is always in a gift box, or beautifully wrapped in quality paper, and given with great respect. Because the symbolism is what’s important, frequently the actual gift may be very modest. And in Asia and the Middle East it is very important to only use your right hand, or both hands, to offer or accept a gift.
For thousands of years, some native cultures have engaged in a complex ceremony that celebrates extreme giving known as potlatch. Although cultural interpretations vary, often the status of a given family in a clan or village was dictated not by who had the most possessions, but instead by who gave away the most. The more lavish and bankrupting the potlatch, the more prestige gained by the host family.
In the beginning, we humans received the greatest and most beautiful gift of all gifts—creation: the heavens and the earth and all that is within. Light and darkness, sky, water and land, plants of every kind and trees bearing all kinds of fruit; great sea animals and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind, cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind—all gifts from God. These gifts were expressions of God’s boundless love and care, but they were also God’s way of establishing relationship—covenant relationship. Creation was God’s way of defining relationship. The giver, God, was extravagant in the gift given. The critical question for us today, and I do mean critical, is just how grateful we, the receivers of the gift, will be and just how much we will respect, honor, and cherish the gift of Creation that God has entrusted to us. Another way of asking the question is to ask, “What will be our gift to God in caring for creation?”
As we approach these most pressing questions of faith, we will need to do so with a spirit of confession. We will need to confess the anti-ecological teachings of Christianity that have been handed down through the Judeo-Christian worldview. We must confess the human-centric view, which sees the other orders of creation as of no intrinsic value, but of only instrumental value to us, as a sin. Such egocentric mindset is not only bad theology, it is wrong thinking. We humans do not stand at the center of the universe surrounded by all things made just for us. We are one part—one small part—of the whole. It is true that, “the first book of the Bible does explicitly give humankind a prime role in the continuation of creation. Genesis 1:26 bestows special status on us…” But “we have interpreted the ‘dominion’ granted to humankind as giving us raw power to exploit and abuse the rest of creation, rather than as requiring mature responsibility of us to show respect and loving care for creation.” (James Forbes) God has not promised abundance so that we might neglect to preserve or conserve.
In the spirit of confession, there may be a more fundamental confession to make: it is the teaching that there is a division between the spiritual and physical/material world. Such dualistic theology, placing primacy on the spiritual world, has had devastating effects on our understanding of our connection with creation, our responsibility to creation, and our dependence on living in the natural world. We have focused far too long on God being in some spiritual dwelling place up above and beyond, and ignored that the natural world is God’s dwelling place, God’s home. We failed to stress that, “the earth is God’s and the fullness thereof.”
In a powerful image, James Forbes writes of how we have ignored the fact that, indeed, the earth is God’s home, God’s dwelling place. He says, “Only a criminal or someone mentally deranged would thoughtlessly walk into a stranger’s home and eat through their cupboards leaving only crumbs behind, clog the sink with trash, uproot the ficus tree in the pot in the corner and the plant on the table, and run through a pack of cigarettes, filling the house with smoke. We consider it criminal to treat someone else’s home in such a destructive manner.” And yet, this is how we are treating God’s home.
If there is redemption for all creation, it will begin with our willingness to confess the harmful and destructive teaching of our faith.
But confession is not the last word or act. Gratitude, thanksgiving, awe, and reverence flow out of confession as the next word. Properly placing ourselves within the whole of creation, acknowledging that we are a part of the whole but not the whole, puts within us a right spirit of gratitude and reverence. It is then that we can look up to the heavens and feel what David felt when he wrote, “The heavens are telling of God, and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” It is then that we can say with the Psalmists, “The earth is God’s and the fullness thereof.” It is then that we can speak of creation as a friend recently did in sharing with me his reflections on growing up near the Blue Ridge Mountains. He wrote, “I love the Blue Ridge Mountains. They touch my soul. They speak to my awareness of the spiritual: something larger than I can conceive, something ancient beyond any calculation, something stretching into an equally infinite future—a continuum of which I am a part. If ever I have connected, however briefly, with something beyond human intelligence and mortal senses, it was in the Blue Ridge.” The last word is one of awe, reverence, and gratitude.
If we are to develop a “greener” theology it will require a new interpretation of the Creation story and of much of our sacred text. It will ask us to re-consider our role and our place in God’s created world. In the spirit of radical discipleship that Christ calls us to, it will require us to change the way we live in this world. It will require people of faith to struggle with moral and ethical questions of population growth, technology advances, mass production, and equitable distribution of resources.
The moral and ethical issues surrounding this real environmental crisis in our world often feels overwhelming to me. I wonder sometimes how caring for creation has become so complicated and complex? This past week, I did something that has helped me re-focus my thought and commitment to a greener theology and way of living. For the past seven days, I have started my day with reading Genesis 1:1-2:4. What I have discovered in doing this is that I am much more aware of creation as I go through my day. This week I paid closer attention to what I threw in the trash. I didn’t throw away my toothpaste tube when it got down to the very end. I did as Suzanne Newton suggested and I squeezed a bit harder so as not to be wasteful. Not because I had to but because I wanted to. I put down my fork at dinner one night to go out and watch the evening primrose open to the moon. I reminded myself that I live in God’s house. I tried to pay attention, to act more responsibly, and to be grateful for this gift called creation. Periodically I could hear God still saying, “And it is good, very good.”
We have been given and entrusted with the gift of creation, a living gift of God’s love and commitment to us. How we accept and honor this gift will ultimately define our relationship with God and to all living things. It is never too late to confess our wrong thinking and actions and live as grateful people. Maybe that is the radical, life changing action that God is calling us to.